When my sister and I were young, our mother routinely signed us up for all kinds of summer camps and activities, whether we liked it or not. Mostly not.
We had soccer camps, swimming lessons, basketball camps, ceramics classes, an ill-fated attempt to enlist me in the chorus for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and one summer, roller skating camp.
I had never roller skated at the point of my involuntary registration for roller skating camp. My younger sister had never roller skated before either. She put on her skates and just started rolling around like she had been doing it all her life. I reasoned she was too young to realize how painful pain was. Having already broken a couple of bones by that age, I was much more cautious.
One day, I was clutching the rail, moving about an inch a minute, my skates, which weighed more than me, dangling below when I noticed this man standing on the side, next to the snack bar, watching me. He was smoking a cigarette, wearing a yellow Doobie Brothers concert shirt, probably about 25 years old or so.
In front of where he was standing was an opening where the rail stopped. That was the entrance for skaters into the rink. It was about three feet wide. As I came to this opening, I stopped, held on to the rail, then lunged for the rail on the other side of the entrance, my roller skates slipping and sliding beneath me. I somehow managed to gather my balance and was slowly on my way when the man next to the snack bar yelled to me.
"Hey, kid, wait a second," he said.
I hung on to the bar, thinking, okay, I'm about to be kidnapped. And I can't even run away.
"Hey, kid, why aren't you skating like the rest of 'em?"
"Uh, ah, well, mister, see, I can't skate," I said.
He took a drag, then pointed across the three-foot rink entrance I had just barely transversed.
"Listen, kid, if you can cross that, you can cross that," he said as he directed his cigarette in the direction of the opposite side of the rink.
I looked at him like he was nuts. What was that he was smoking?
"See, kid, if you can cross that without holding on, you can go all the way across there. It's the same thing, only longer," he said, waving his cigarette around as he spoke.
I didn't tell him what he just said made no sense, for fear that he would get mad and kidnap me.
Instead, I told him I didn't think I could make it across. He insisted I could. We went back and forth, until finally, I said, "okay, I'll do it." This guy wasn't going to be happy until I tried it, or split open my skull, which was probably part of his plan to kidnap me anyway.
So, with smoking Doobie Brothers guy encouraging me from the sideline, I stuck my hands out and started to inch my way out into the center of the rink, looking like a miniature Frankenstein as roller skating kids streaked around me.
About the time I got to the center of the rink, I heard the guy scream, "You're halfway there, dude. Keep it up!"
I did. Gaining confidence, the last 10 feet or so I was rolling and actually had some control over what I was doing. When I reached the rail on the other side, I turned around, raised my hands in the air, and screamed "Yeah! I did it!" I looked across the rink, hoping to celebrate my roller skating victory with my new friend and coach. He was gone.
Over the next week or so of roller skating camp, I never saw the guy again. But I became a fairly decent skater because of his encouragement, and much more importantly, learned something about fear.
It doesn't take much to make a difference, does it?