Have you ever walked into an event and realized you were the only person like you there? Did you leave?
Two years ago, I signed up for an early morning University-level fitness class, hoping for a few last-minute pointers before a bicycle ride to Montgomery, New York. I expected that we would read a book, spend a few minutes in the gym at the end of class, and possibly keep an exercise log. On the first day of class, I arrived a few minutes early in plaid shorts and an old golf shirt. To my surprise, I found nearly 70 uniformed ROTC Cadets on the exercise field. The Professor assured me that I was welcomed and in the right place. Although ecstatic at my good fortune, as the workouts got harder and the weather colder, I regularly considered dropping, but I just couldn’t quit.
For a few months, we ran and rucked miles and miles, did thousands of pushups and sit-ups and all kinds of other crazy exercises in the Army Fitness manual. Over the months we learned each other’s abilities, work ethic, teamwork and to never, ever leave someone behind. Everyone in class now recognizes that a 57-year-old will never run as fast as an 18-year-old cadet, but also that a 57-year-old can pass the physical tests semester after semester. We were all surprised.
The emotional challenge of the class was stronger than the physical challenge. My opinion of cadets was based on my 1980’s Army experience with a single Cadet. My opinion was wrong! At 57, I thought I had different values and ethics than the cadets. I was wrong again. These students were role models for this suburban Grandpa!
The entire class arrived early each morning. The students would greet each other, take their attendance, and check up on anyone missing. Before class, the students publicly pledged to follow their values, mostly the values my parents taught me: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honesty, Integrity, and Personal Courage. For example, when the instructors don’t show up, two students walk to the front and start the class! By toughing out this experience for four semesters, I discovered that although we are different in age, education level, backgrounds, marital status, physical ability, and other ways, we are all similar.
These students caught me many times as I was falling, and on the few times I did hit the ground, they immediately picked me up. They taught me how to lose gracefully yet come back, again and again, knowing that no matter how hard I train I will be last. This is the gift that this diversity experience and these Cadets gave me.