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  • Reverend James Squire

In the Arena

Americans were being called some nasty names when Joe Biden indicated, “That’s not who we are. We are better than that!” He needs to restate his words with, “Maybe some of us aren’t!”

I was struck by two telephone messages that seem to me to be a measuring stick for behavior. We have a wonderful veterinary clinic where we take Sadie the wonder dog. The clinic has guidelines where you are required to mask even if you are not leaving your car when arriving. The vet tech gets Sadie and takes her inside. The answering message on their machine warns people that the clinic has had a series of rude, arrogant, impolite people taking out their frustrations on the staff and doctors. It will no longer be tolerated. First, we had the attacks on passengers on planes and now attacks on a vet staff who happen to be the friendliest people you could ever meet.

First, the airlines, restaurants, and now my veterinarians’ practice. Yikes!

The Inquirer had a similar message on their answering service about the threats and general rude behavior that the newspaper staff had received. Their response was to prepare for the bad behavior that they will get during the series on racism that started today.

One of the frustrating moments for those who have followed the Olympics is the failure of world class skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, to fail to receive any medals as a result of her falls on three occasions down the slope. The likelihood of that happening is zero, but she did have the bad runs. The media lit up with texts such as, “you should retire, choker, arrogant, dumb blond, disgrace.” I can’t repeat most of the “supportive” messages that she got as they were over the top criticisms laced with profanity.

I have noticed something I believe is at the heart of this bad behavior. We know that Covid has caused great frustration. I read recently that for the first time in American history more people say they are unhappy rather than happy. But there is something more. I think that the people who are most rude are those who are in the metaphorical stands and not in the arena of those who are on the receiving end of this “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

I look to one of my favorite quotations from President Theodore Roosevelt in his Citizen in a Republic speech. He gave this address at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1920. The following words have made the speech famous. I have attempted to live these words in my life, sometimes successfully and at other times not.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Arenas take different forms that give us different bystanders beyond a ski run, newspaper series, or attending to customers at a vet practice. I was struck by a column in the February 19, 2022 edition of the Inquirer with the title “Lancaster Schools Employ Student Custodians.” When I saw that title, I began to smile. They clean bathrooms, classrooms, and stairwells. 14 students signed up for a 3 to 11 shift. It is the following comment that got my attention. An administrator commented, “I’ve got feedback already where they’ve got a better appreciation for what’s been done in the schools that they weren’t aware of.” The duties of being a janitor was their arena. It was mine too which was why I smiled reading the article.

I had a storybook dream of a high school career. I worked hard, became president of the class, valedictorian, king of the court, school concert pianist, and winner of many awards. But a week before graduation I had little money for college. I had worked as a cashier at an equivalent of Walmart, and loaded gallon paint cans on to skids at the Krylon paint factory. My father had a crippling stroke when I was a sophomore. We received 60% of his earnings as a meatcutter, but 60% of a little is not a lot. He went back to work a year later and was demoted from meatcutter to fishman because his arm and hand were not steady enough. This was a personal embarrassment to him, but he never complained and retired early. I lived in two very different worlds, the world of home and the world of school.

The superintendent of schools, Dr. Oermann, called me into his office a week before graduation and asked if I had a job for the summer. He was aware of our family situation. Industry around the town was collapsing so there was little employment to be had. I told him that I did not. That was my nightmare. He offered me a job working with Mr. Banks, our African American custodian at the school. Mr. Banks shared all his duties with me instead of him, for example, giving me the task of cleaning all the restrooms. It was in that arena that I learned the leadership dictum to “never have someone do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself.” I carried that through life. I have evaluated more people than I can mention, but I always had them evaluate me even if it was not part of the process as one example.

That job as a janitor gave me enough money to get to college with some help from parents, and later work in the steel mill in the summer would take care of my financial needs with funds left over. Most of the above is covered in my memoir, The times of My Life. What isn’t covered are the titles that we were going to give the book. One of those titles under consideration was From Janitor to Jarvis Fellow. I am always aware of who cleans the buildings of the various schools I have attended and what it takes to keep them clean. I never asked someone to do what I was not willing to do. That is why the people of California and LA are so upset when their leaders appear without masks when they have called for mandates.

Sometimes you never know the arena for changing you when you are in it! Whatever the arena, you will never join rude, insulting, “know it all people” who can be found sitting in the stands.

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