by Jim Langlas, Free Spirit author of The Heart of a Warrior
When he was 8 years old, Glenn Cunningham of Kansas was so badly burned in a fire at his school that the doctors thought he might never walk again. In fact, some of the medical folks thought he should have his legs amputated. He had lost all of the skin on his legs, and the arch of his foot was severely damaged.
Two years later, he took his first steps. By the time he was in his late twenties, he was setting world records in the 800 meters and 1,500 meters. Throughout the 1930s he was one of the fastest runners in the world. When he retired from running, he helped thousands of foster children begin their lives.
Amazing, isn’t it? And true! I remember my father told me this inspirational story when I was a boy in order to remind me of the power of determination. It is a story of what people can do if they decide they want to do it. But it is also a story of perseverance. Glenn Cunningham did not just get up one morning two years after the fire and begin to walk. He had to consistently—repeatedly—try. And then he had to perform at that level again and again—and in his case, he kept getting better and better.
While Glenn Cunningham might not be considered a warrior, that is what he was. He was a champion and a warrior. He personified the warrior trait of perseverance and he had the sign of a champion and the mark of a warrior: the determination to repeat what he needed to do until he was successful.
When I tell my students about Glenn Cunningham, I hope they will think about how the lesson may apply to their lives. I ask them to think about what they want to do in their lives. Do they want to be a better dancer or singer, a more accomplished student or actor, a champion skateboarder or basketball player, an expert auto mechanic or writer? There certainly are ways to achieve their goals and to be happy. The most important way is to act. None of us can just hope to achieve something. We have to act, we have to practice, we have to try—over and over.
I tell my students that they are all capable of achieving excellence in an area of life. And I remind them that Glenn Cunningham’s success did not happen immediately. In fact, it took years. And it literally—literally—began with one step, which in his case was very painful. He hoped and then he acted. He believed and then he repeated those actions—those steps—over and over. Of course, he occasionally became discouraged. But he just kept doing—and doing—and doing. His excellence was a result of his perseverance—his consistency.
As our young people move through their summer and prepare for another school year, perhaps they are taking those positive steps toward excellence. I know that some of them are truly practicing what they are interested in—over and over. While it is important that they enjoy some free time, we hope they will not make relaxation their goal or their habit. As parents and leaders, we know that their success depends upon their perseverance. Their excellence depends upon their consistency.
Can you help the young people you know develop perseverance at school and at home? Perhaps you can help your child or teen develop a plan for success. Sometimes a chart or graph of practice and progress is helpful. Some young people enjoy journaling, too, where they record and reflect on the consistent steps they take and the struggles and successes they encounter.
Would you be willing to share any strategies for encouraging young people to persevere and to embrace consistent study or practice? As a guide and inspiration, do you have any ideas about ways to boost a struggling young person?
Jim Langlas is an educator, writer, and Taekwondo master. In the more than 40 years that he’s practiced Taekwondo, he has been a gold medal winner at the International Taekwondo Federation World Championships, a Taekwondo instructor, and the founder of his own dojang. Jim also taught high school English for more than 30 years and is a published poet.
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American Miler: The Life and Times of Glenn Cunningham by Paul J. Kiell