Saturday, April 2, 2011

Lead Us, But Lead Us Not

For the majority of his youth, Michael had been slight for his age. With this perceived disadvantage so came the bullying in the schoolyard and at the local playground.
The bullying and taunting intensified when he started playing baseball in the local little league program. Because of his size, he was always assigned to right field. Because of the local rules, the coach was forced to play everybody on the team for at least three innings. Michael always started the games, playing the first three so that the bigger and better kids were in the game for the final six. Of course, he also batted last and was told not to swing. He was small, so his strike zone was far more difficult to hit. The coaches decided that a walk would be a man on base, but Michael trying to hit the ball would result in an out or double play.
One game, Michael was frustrated with not being allowed to "swing away". With a runner on second, Michael bunted down the first base line, advancing the runner to third. What the coaches failed to recognize was Michael's speed. He was on first base and taunting the opposing team to throw the ball to second before any player could even get a grasp on the ball. Of course, he forced the error on a wild throw, and made it to second. The runner made it home, giving Michael's team an early lead. However, Michael was taken out of the game in the third inning. In addition, the coach gave him a lecture on following directions.
When the team ended up losing the game on an in-the-park home run in the ninth inning, it somehow became Michael's fault because they "would have won if some people listened and did what the coach said". Michael responded searching for accolades for his bunt. The team ended up running the perimeter of the park 20 times because of his arrogance. Michael got his nose broken and his briefs pulled halfway up his back from other members of his team. Six boys from the team circled around Michael while Hank, the chubby catcher and biggest bully of the bunch, slapped Micheal around and gave him a "Melvin". The coaches stood by cheering the whole time.
In an act of defiance, Michael struck out swinging in his one at-bat the next game, two days later. He suffered jeers and teasing from the rest of his team, led by Hank, that day and during the next two successive practices. The whole team, to include the coaches were against him, it seemed.
All of them joined in the mob mentality of picking on the little guy, except for Vinnie. Vinnie was the team's superstar. Vinnie appeared to be a natural at baseball. He was the league's best pitcher with a remarkable fastball for a 10-year-old. He also led the league in RBIs and had the best batting average with a .800. It seemed that every time Vinnie stepped up to the plate, he knocked the ball out of the park.
What made it appear that Vinnie was such a great player was that he was able to do all of this despite his having to leave games or practices early on Tuesdays and Thursdays for some unknown reason. He also was late to several Saturday games due to some other commitment. What the rest of the team didn't know was that Vinnie spent at least an hour a day all year round with his father practicing baseball. What the rest of the team also didn't know was that baseball wasn't Vinnie's only athletic activity.
After the particularly second practice, Michael walked over to his bike, doing his best to hide the tears welling in his eyes. He knew the tears would just goad the rest of the team into punishing him more. The usually quiet and soft-spoken Vinnie rallied the rest of the team around him. He spoke of teamwork and unity. He told the others that the only way the team could be great would be if everybody pulled their weight and helped each other to improve. He then told them that he didn't think that what they did to Michael was right. Vinnie's eyes peered directly into Hank's the entire time. He walked away from the rest of the team and stopped Michael before he could ride away.
Vinnie waited until the other kids were gone. He took Michael back on the field and threw him some slow pitches, gradually increasing the speed. He told Micheal to just connect with them, not to swing all the way through. He worked on technique and focus. Soon, Micheal was hitting the ball into left-center, a perfect hole for a base hit. Vinnie cheered each time he had to run back to retrieve the ball for the next pitch. "Look, Micheal, you have to listen to the coach. But here's the deal. If that pitcher actually puts one into your strike zone, and you hit it like that, well, there's nothing anybody can say. With your speed, you'll have a double every time. The coaches won't stop you from swinging anymore."
"Thanks Vinnie"
"Hey, Michael, one more thing. What are you doing Saturday morning?"
"Watching cartoons. Other than that, nothin' "
"I'll have my dad pick you up at eight."
"There's somebody I want you to meet."

That Saturday morning, Micheal sat on his front porch in anticipation. He had no idea what Vinnie's plan was or where they were going. Michael expected it would have something to do with baseball, so he wore a sweatsuit and had his glove. In a backpack, he had a nice pair of jeans and a cool shirt in case it wasn't baseball. Vinnie's father pulled up and Vinnie motioned for Micheal to get in the car. "Sorry we're late, I had some chores to do. But Dad says we'll still be there in time."
The whole ride, Michael berated father and son to tell him where they were headed. The two just grinned and shook their heads. Fifteen minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of a boarded-up store. A older man motioned them inside and patted Micheal on the head. "So this is the 'new brother' you were bragging about? Well, Vinnie, we'll see how he measures up."
The man's words welled anxiety into Micheal's heart. Micheal wondered what they would be expecting of him in this strange place. The old man told Micheal to take off his shoes and place his bag, shoes, and baseball glove in the corner.
"Sir, what is this place? Why am I here?"
"Micheal, this is a sacred place. It is my school. I teach boys to be men. I teach men to be warriors."
"So you're going to teach me how to fight?"
"I teach people how to defend themselves and to defend others. I teach how to fight if you must. I also teach how to not fight unless it can be helped. I teach a way of life. That I'm going to teach you anything is yet to be seen. Now, here are my rules. Do what I say as I say or show to do it. Do not question what I say, only how. Never say that you are sorry, to me, only that you will do better. Do better. The words 'I can't' are forbidden here. Whatever I teach you must never be used in anger. You must never use what I teach you to harm anybody else unless you absolutely have no other choice. The other students in this school will be your brothers and sisters. You must always stand up for what is best for them, just like you should for your own family. Never be disrespectful of your parents. Study hard in school. Practice 'the way' at all times. Never dishonor your family, this school, or yourself. Can you follow these rules?"
"That is a 'yes, sir' or a 'no, sir'. You must make that choice, here an now. Here is where you are. Now is the time of choosing. This is a choice that can shape the rest of your life. This choice is your first lesson. It is also the most important one. So, once more time, Michael. Will you follow these rules?"
"Yes, sir."
"Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, you will be here without fail, as long as you are a member of this school. You will recite these rules at the beginning and end of each class. Vinnie has a copy of our book at home. I gave it to him on Thursday, to give to you when the time was right. Ask him for it."
"Yes, sir."
"You learn quickly. Now, go to that corner, sit on your heels, and watch the class. Do not ask anything. Do not make a sound. Do not move from that spot until I tell you to, for any reason."
Micheal obeyed. He watched in amazement the different things the other students could do. They could move with such grace, speed, and power it was entrancing.  He listened to the teacher's words, and let them fill his mind. Questions formed, then answered themselves. Near the end of the class, the teacher motioned for Micheal to join them. He introduced Michael to the rest of the class. Then the class circled around him.
"Michael, it is time to see if you learned anything today. Relax and clear your mind. think of nothing. I do not mean to not think of anything. I mean think about what 'nothing' is. Close your eyes and trust us."
Michael did as he was told. The world spun and he found himself on his back on the mat. "Stand up and do it again". Micheal obeyed, but he was more tentative. Again, he ended up on the mat. "Michael, to learn to walk, you have to crawl, then stand, then fall. Trust and unity are the same way. Now, go to that end of the mat. Think of nothing. Feel the way your body works. Walk from there to the other end. Do not stop. Do not raise a hand. Oh, and Micheal, do not open your eyes for anything."
Michael again did what he was told. Sometimes, he felt the world spin. He expected to feel the mat strike his face, but it didn't. Other times, he stepped and he felt a slight touch turn him in another direction. He was tempted to open his eyes to re-orient his direction. He avoided the temptation and squinted them tighter. then he felt himself lifted into the air by many hands.
"Open your eyes, Michael. You did it." Michael was suddenly aware that some of the other students pushed him around, struck him, and threw him in order to test his resolve. Others pushed him back to the correct course, back onto his path.
The rest of the class held him up and carried him to the center. One of the other students pointed to a spot and told Michael to stand there. the rest of the class formed into a rectangle with Micheal at the back, left corner. The class bowed to the teacher. Then they recited the rules.

Michael diligently continued to attend the classes. He also started practicing baseball with Vinnie for a half-hour before or after every regular practice and game. The two quickly became close friends. Hank noticed this and started to jibe and taunt Vinnie about it. Vinnie always responded with a quiet grin. the other team members began to take notice. A schism seemed to develop, half the team remaining loyal to Hank while the other half siding with Vinnie. In all of this, Vinnie seemed to take no side but Michael's. The season ended with a loss in the championship game. Hank used the loss as an excuse to, once again, blame little Michael for all that was wrong in the little league world.
Eight months passed. Michael continued with his training at the school. He discovered that the martial art he was learning was a form of Bujitsu,  the way of the Samurai. But it was a ryu, or school, developed by the teacher. The school he attended was the only of its kind in the world, the only one that taught this particular style. The teacher had traveled the world as a young man and learned several styles of martial arts, to include traditional Japanese Karate and Aikido. What he taught was a blend of these various styles.
He also heard rumors that the teacher had studied with monks in Tibet and various spiritual leaders around the world. He heard adults use another name for the teacher. Micheal later learned that name to mean "bringer of peace" in some other language. Michael fond it odd that a teacher of fighting would have such a title. One day, after class, Michael asked the teacher about it. The teacher responded only that some people use names and titles for others because it helps them to categorize the roles of the others is in their life. He said that many called him "bringer of peace" because he insists on battling against unnecessary conflict with peace and kindness. "I battle force with leverage. Most of the time, the best leverage is to be gentle or give in without giving up. That is our way."
Baseball season began again with practices and team meetings. Hank continued to badger and taunt both Michael and Vinnie. During the third practice of the season, the coach insisted upon batting practice. Hank retorted that letting Michael bat was a waste of time, since he wasn't allowed to swing anyway. Micheal did as Vinnie had coached him. He let the ball go past him seven times because it was not in "the zone". Then the coach snickered when he saw the sign that Hank gave him. It was for an inside fastball. Because he found some bit of malicious humor to it, he let one rip. Out of control, it smacked Micheal in the helmet.
"Oh, no, the little baby's gonna cry!" Hank belted out in response.
To everybody's amazement, Michael stood up, dusted himself off, and stepped back into the box. "Coach, could you please throw me a strike for once? The kids on the other teams throw better than that."
The coach responded with another heater. This one was a fastball that could have come from a professional minor-league pitcher. Michael swung the bat and met the ball. The ball flew to the bottom of the fence in left-center field. The rest of the team stood with mouths agape as Vinnie cheered his friend. Hank took this as a personal affront, an attack on his character.
After the practice, Hank and his band of six surrounded Michael with the intent of giving him another bloody nose and "Melvin", at the very least.
Vinnie walked up, followed by the rest of the team. "Hank, what's the matter? Do you need six people to fight your battles for you?"
"What, you here to fight his battles for him? I don't need these guys. Does little Mikey-wikey need his bodyguard to defend him?"
"Actually, Hank, I'm here to see that you don't get hurt. We need our catcher this year."
"Me, get hurt?"
The rest of the team laughed with Hank.
"Michael, remember the rules. Don't hurt him more than you have to."
Hank rushed at Micheal. Micheal moved to the side and tripped Hank. "Hank, just let it go. I don't want to fight."
"You mean you don't want your ass kicked again," replied Hank as he stood up and rushed in swinging. Michael blocked the punches and responded with a single punch to Hank's midsection. Hank doubled over and fell to the ground. Micheal reached down to try to help Hank back to his feet.
"I'd want to be your friend and team mate, Hank. Friends and team mates don't fight each other."
Hank responded by slapping Michael's hand away. Michael offered his hand again. Hank took it and allowed Micheal to help him to his feet. Once there, he tightened his grip and tried to pull Micheal into a bear hug. Micheal ducked and curtsied,  allowing Hank to fall over Micheal and land on the ground to the other side. By now, the other kids were laughing at Hank's failure. Micheal looked at Vinnie.
"That's enough. This isn't funny!" yelled Vinnie. The other kids looked stunned. Again, Michael offered to help Hank to his feet. Hank was crying in embarrassment. He got to his feet and began to run home.
Twenty minutes later, Vinnie and Michael knocked on Hank's door. When Hank finally succumbed to his mother's goading, he came to the door. "Hank, about today, we're really sorry. Vinnie and me have been talking. What are you doing Saturday morning? There is somebody we want you to meet."

35 years later, three men met at a local bar. They shared a friendship and a bond that had grown stronger with the years. Hank was still Hank. Hank had become a psychologist specializing in family counseling and teen crisis therapy. Vinnie was now "Coach" or "Mr. P". Vinnie made it onto a major league baseball team, but was cut after one season. He decided not to pursue that path. Instead, he decided to follow his life-long ambition as a high school math teacher and baseball coach. Michael was now known as "Cale". He had just retired from the military, having served numerous tours at war. He was preparing to travel in order to work on his doctorates in philosophy and spirituality. This was his homecoming and farewell party.
A drunken thirty-something  bumped, spilling both of their drinks. The drunk immediately became confrontational. Hank apologized and offered to replace the man's beer.
"For your clumsiness I ought to beat the beer out of you."
"Yeah, yeah... I remember the rules." Hank turned to the man as Vinnie and Cale pulled bills out of their pockets and handed them to Hank. "Let us buy you and your friends another round, friend."
Hank turned to hand the money to the bartender. The drunk drew back his fist to hit Hank. Cale deflected the blow and turned the drunk to face him. Gripping the man's hand, he shook it. "I'm Cale and I'm damned glad to meet you. I always say that nobody can ever have enough friends." The drunk's demeanor shifted, softened.
"Hey, dude, I'm sorry. I had a bad day."
"Everybody has those now and then. Tell ya what, why don't we all sit down and see if me, my friends, you, and your friends can't all turn a bad day into a good night, together."
The night went on. As they were preparing to head home, Hank and Vinnie asked Cale what he was planning to do after he got back from his trip.
"I'm planning on re-opening the school, and I can sure use a couple of assistant peace-bringers."