Michael Johnson sent this lovely article to me with the perfect timing of it being Hubby’s birthday.
I think it is kismet for all of us. May we all find our helpers. Or, perhaps, the gift is being the helper. In any event, may this inspire all of us on Hubby’s special day.
What Makes Us Rise?
by Michael Johnson.
True helpers. That’s what. That’s what makes us rise. I have breakfast with one most every morning now. We have coffee and we laugh, we tell stories, and we always say a little prayer for his daddy. I look at him across the table with his still red hair and blue eyes, and that smile. Always that smile. And I think how lucky I am to have a friend like him at this point in my life…and how lucky I am to have had him as a friend most all of my life. He was the key, you see. He was the answer to the mystery. I looked for it so long and in so many places, but of course, it was always right under my nose – right in front of me – just as it is now. It wasn’t in a book, or a library. It wasn’t in some theory or latest fad. It was plain and pure and simple. It was always in him.
But I’m getting ahead of the story…
I was born into a lower middle-income farm family who did everything in the world for me. Unfortunately, I did very little for them – which is my great regret ‘til this day. Not an evil child; not in trouble with the law (much). Rather silly, unfocused, and immature –
like a good many youth I suppose. Made terrible grades…but that wasn’t my fault. Just out of high school by the skin of my teeth (by one point) a graduate student gave me an I. Q. test and he said I was “slightly below average.” I was never more relieved because once that information came to light, there was no way any of this could be my fault. I was just slow. So I worked hard in other areas to compensate and at eighteen years of age, I had attained the rank of “Rodeo Bum”…and not a very good one at that. I attended college regularly though, but didn’t fare too well. I made 13 F’s in a row. 13 consecutive F’s – a record that I assume still stands somewhere. Then something happened…
My father died suddenly at a relatively young age. My mother couldn’t handle the grief.
She had what was called in those days a “nervous breakdown.” (Which sounds really bad until we live long enough to learn we all have one or two, now don’t we?) I was left alone.
On Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of the Financial Aids Office at East Texas State University. The receptionist said, “I’m afraid everyone has gone for the day – and for the weekend, for that matter. You will have to come back on Monday.” I didn’t tell her that meant sleeping in my truck another two nights. As I was about to leave, a man came from behind his office door. Dressed in a suit and tie, and shiny shoes, he was much the opposite of the somewhat dirty young person who stood before him. “I’m Jerry Lytle,” he said. “I’ll visit with you. Come on in.”
We went into his office and even though quite odd for an introverted “slow” young fellow, I found myself pouring out my story to this stranger. I told him about how I hadn’t been much of a son, how I squandered what meager ability I had, and how I was filled with regret – and no matter how silly, I had made a solemn vow to make my father proud of me even at this too late date. He listened. Never said a word. Then, he rose and walked to the door saying to the receptionist, “I’m leaving now. See you Monday.” I knew I had made a fool of myself.
“Thank you for visiting with me, Mr. Lytle,” I said.
He looked at me for a moment and said, “No. You’re coming with me.”
Riding in his truck, we drove some ten miles out into the surrounding countryside.
He came on an old farmhouse and pulled in the lane. Hay peered from every window.
“My daddy and I own this house. We use it as a hay barn, but it has running water and it’s heated. We can remove the hay. There’s my farm gas tank over there. Don’t steal me blind and you can use it to get to class every day. You can hunt and fish out here. We do wish you would help us work cows on the weekends, and you will find it more fun than work. We have a good time. I’ll start working on your financial aid Monday.”
I sat there in that truck in frozen silence. Over and over the thought coursed through my mind. “What did he just say? Why would anyone do that? Could I somehow gather an answer to that question? If I had been a math whiz, a violin prodigy, or ran a 100 in ten flat, I could see it. But why would you help someone who only – only – had 13 F’s?”
And so it began. A different world. Weekends filled with cattle, men working, men laughing, becoming a part of something, and during the week, always the work, the studying, the lessons. He came by the farmhouse most every day asking if I was all right or if I needed anything. I shared my grades with him and we rejoiced about a new life. A life of hope.
Graduation came and he was there. We said our good-byes and we promised to stay in touch – and did a surprisingly good job of that through the years. I entered the world of work and lived there for two decades, and eventually there came a time – as in most people’s lives – where things took a down turn. Somewhere along the way as Yeats said, “Things fall apart. The center will not hold.” Kids grew up and went off to college, divorce came, the word “downsizing” came into my life. While that didn’t happen, rumors were just as stressful, and I felt like a Twilight Zone character who wakes up one morning and no one is in town. I took a sabbatical from my job and moved to the mountains. An old paint horse and I spent a year together in those mountains. We rode and we talked, and somewhere along the way, I had the strangest thought…
I’m not much of a religious nut – after all, (ahem) I’m just a Methodist – but I would describe the thought as spiritual. I’m uncomfortable for some reason saying that, but the thought wasn’t mine. Plato said, “I don’t know where ideas come from, but I know they don’t come from here.” It was like that. Wasn’t my idea – the thought came from somewhere else. Somewhere outside. And the thought was…“Why did you change when you did?” At the time, I thought that was silly. Here I was worried about my entire life and I find myself thinking about something that happened twenty years ago? And the thought burned stronger. “Why did you change when you did?” Paint and I rode through the hills. We swam the river and the streams and we talked and we wondered…and the thought burned stronger.
At first, I offered the usual answers to myself. You matured, you straightened up, you put away childish things. No. When we hear truth, we know it. None of those answers sufficed.
Of course I’m not telling you I won the Nobel Prize here. I’m saying I managed to get off the road to prison. I changed from F’s to A’s. Because I became smarter? Hardly. I still have that below average I. Q. (I’m using it to write this piece.) No, that wasn’t the answer.
The answer was somewhere else. That was the moment I experienced fear. It hit me with suddenness that I knew I couldn’t go back to work. I knew I would spend the rest of my days looking for the answer to the mystery of “What makes us rise?” And that came to pass. That’s what I’ve done with all my days since that day.
When I was in college I knew what I wanted. I wanted the professors to teach me how to help people. After all, they had all those books, lecture halls, and theories, and they were from such famous places like Ohio State, California at Berkeley, Stanford, Rennselaer, Tulane, and Rice. I listened to their lectures, took their tests, wrote a dissertation, passed a state board exam, received a terminal degree, and…I didn’t get it. I don’t say that to be mean. I didn’t get it. The night they put the cowl around my neck, I looked up…still foggy. No stars. Didn’t get it. But…I didn’t stop looking. I kept looking. Like Siddhartha, who studied with the wisest teachers of his day until he learned they didn’t know how to relieve suffering either…Siddhartha continued the journey on his own.” That’s what I did. Thirty years now. And during all that time, I’ve found some answers. I found some people who knew how. Jerry Lytle was the first one.
I’ve met many of them now – these people, I mean. I can recognize them now. They come in all shapes and sizes, and in all occupations. Some are principals, some superintendents, some are horse trainers or herding dog trainers, and some are actors and singers and some are coaches. Regardless of the discipline they are helping in, whether it be acting, music, track, baseball, singing, etc., these special ones have a common trait. A common gift I should say. These are the people who can move you down the path. These are the people who can make you better.
Have you ever wondered how some woman can come into a small town where the basketball team just finished an 0 and 19 season and have the team winning the next year?
Then the next year, they win the district. Same kids. How do people do that? I can’t tell you how many horses I’ve seen who were vicious beasts. Those horses bucked, pawed, bit, and kicked. People said, “With as many chances as that horse had, he’s just no good. He should be put on a kill truck.” And someone off to the side says, “Well, if you are going to kill him, why don’t you give him to me?” Next thing you know, that horse is running his heart out for that man or woman. He doesn’t buck with her – his head is draped over her shoulder in the stall. How do people do that? What is that person doing differently from everyone else who ever came in that horse’s life? It’s the same with humans, horses, and dogs. All mammals respond to the same things.
Ever heard a coach say, “These kids today…they just don’t care anymore. They’re just not motivated.” Ever heard that? We all have. I’ve always thought that is absolutely the worst thing any coach can say. It is an open admission – a confession – that coach cannot do what he or she is hired to do. I’ve had a number of people tell me, “You can’t motivate another person. You can’t open up someone’s mind and pour in desire.” That is a seductive way to think. I agree the person saying those words cannot motivate another because they have never thought about motivating another. The college professor who says the students are stupid and don’t belong. He needs to say that. Those with elitist views need to have someone to look down on. Such small little people. It’s much easier for them to blame. While we hear statements from cynical people , you will never hear a “true helper” speak such words. Such thoughts never enter their mind.
Too busy changing lives, I suppose.
True helpers are rare, you know. You don’t find them often…and they’re a bit strange. For example, they rarely use praise – not much anyway – and they never use criticism. That’s a bit odd, don’t you think? We all know praise from a teacher is important, isn’t it? And how do you correct someone without criticism? I don’t know. All I know is that’s not the way “true helpers” do it.
After studying them for so many years, I still struggle to describe what it is they do – with the human, horse, or dog. With the seventh grader who is always in trouble, with the high school student in alternative school, or with the thirty-three year old young woman whose husband was beating her and she escaped. Now she’s come to the university and is terrified she won’t graduate. I still struggle to describe what exactly it is the “Pygmalion” does, but I have seen lives such as these changed with my own eyes. And when I try to describe what it is they do, I know I will fail. Like in the last nine books I’ve written, I will again fail to capture the magic…but it will give me such joy to try. I never tire of trying to describe that. I never tire of trying to capture the pure quicksilver thing that changed – and saved – my life.
So what did Jerry Lytle do to – and for – me?
The Helper treats others with equality.
It sprang from the first day. How many people do you know who would take the time to talk with and listen to the “least of these” at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon?
“I’m Jerry Lytle. I’ll visit with you. Come in.”
From the first moment he encountered me, he treated me in a certain way – as if I were his equal. From that initial moment and for the next 50 years, Jerry Lytle always treated me as if he and I were the same in life. That small behavior on his part may seem insignificant to some. Indeed, every poor teacher and every poor coach would consider it so…but to the downtrodden, to the lost, it is not. When someone treats us with kindness and equality, loyalty and willingness to listen to the mentor begins.
The Helper is inclusive.
Jerry Lytle had so many people in his world. He was a successful person. He had been an outstanding athlete, he had a substantial number of close friends, and was always sought after and popular…and yet he invited me into that world the first day as if I were already one of those friends. I can only imagine how many people who knew me would tell him not to do that. If someone asked Jerry Lytle, “Why on earth would you include Michael Johnson?” Jerry – like Jesus – might well have said, “’Cause the righteous don’t need saving.”
Helper’s minimize the difficulty of the task.
When I expressed fear about the requirements of academia, Jerry would say, “Well, while there is work involved, it’s not work that you can’t do. The work is sometimes tedious, sometimes not so exciting, but it is certainly not at a level beyond your ability.”
“How can you know that?” I asked him. “Maybe I will fail.”
“Only if you choose to,” he said. “And the reason I know you can…is because I did.”
Helpers are focused on you doing better.
I think the poor teacher, poor coach, and poor leader make a mistake when they hear someone discussing this topic. They assume that this subject of helping means you let the student do whatever he wants, or the horse do as he pleases. They “hear” no discipline and no boundaries. This behavior translates to them as “weakness.” Those people depend almost exclusively on their authority to rule.
Contrast that with what the Helper actually does…
They do not rely on authority, but they are certainly not always nice. If, for example, the mentor finds you giving less than he or she knows you can, they will withdraw their affection quickly. You are in for a scolding and they do that skillfully. They can sting you. The Helper is interested in your success and they want nothing less. If Jerry Lytle found you not doing your best, he could give you a firm – firm – nudge in the proper direction.
Helpers lack egos.
Their focus is not on themselves. Their focus is on you. Like others with the magic, if you had a conversation with Jerry Lytle, you would find him to be skilled in the art, but the conversation would never be about him. The conversation would be about you.
Helpers last a lifetime and beyond.
When a true helper comes in your life, they never leave. No matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen them, the conversation picks up right where we left them before. Phone calls, letters, Christmas cards, the stream continues. Always checking on us, so proud of us, a joy in our lives and we are in theirs. Jack Nicklaus had his coach, Jack Grout, for 35 years. Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite had Harvey Penick for 40 years. They ain’t got nothing on me. I had Jerry Lytle for 50 years.
I’ll stop now. I could go on and on. Trust me when I tell you that. I never tire of this subject because I know what it did for me. When I help some young person now, I see the puzzlement in their face and at some point they will say, “Why are you doing this? I certainly appreciate it, but my goodness, why are you doing all this?”
And I say, “Because someone did it for me.”
One final note. There is one thing the Helper does for us more valuable than any other.
This story explains…
I took our big Australian Shepherd to a herding dog clinic in Amarillo a few years ago.
Rowdy and I were both scared to death. All the other working dogs in the clinic were so smart they could do algebra, and well…let’s just say Rowdy and I weren’t quite at that level. We had a wonderful day however, and that experience remains one of the highlights of our lives. At the end of the day, the Master, Orin Barnes, from Canyon, Texas, said this goodbye to the crowd…
“We’ve had joy here today. We’ve all learned a great deal – especially me. I want you to remember something. I want you to remember this…
The great teacher is always doing the same thing. Whether working with the human, the horse, or the dog, the great teacher is always…convincing us that we can.”
That’s what true helpers do. They give us strength and power because they believe in us. They raise our self-esteem. They get us to try. When we fail, they stand with us and after a time, they say, “Try again.” And when victory comes, they rejoice with us.
That’s what Jerry Lytle did for me…and hundreds of others just like me.
Well, maybe not quite as bad as me.
Dr. Michael Johnson
Texas A&M University-Commerce
Distinguished Alum 2008
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