The kid’s name was Benjie. He was a slightly overweight rambunctious 10 year old.
And the summer counselors clearly hated him.
When I was assigned to teach tennis to these kids as part of their summer program, the lead counselor told me that Benjie would be my problem child. It would be perfectly fine when he acted out, and she assured me he would, to sit him out. In fact, she said she had no problem if I had to yell at him and take the tennis racquet away to really get his attention.
From her point of view, she had been in charge of Benjie exactly one week and she already decided because of him this was going to be the longest summer ever.
I met Benjie on a Monday. He walked down from the school hosting the summer program. I could tell instantly who she had warned me about the Friday before. All the kids were walking in a straight line except Benjie. He was doing anything but follow instructions. He was running, jumping and kicking rocks as they came down the street.
The counselor assigned to walk the kids down clearly had had her fill of Benjie by the time they arrived at the tennis courts. She was chewing on him pretty good and he was clearly already way over listening to anything she had to say.
My job was to teach tennis to these kiddos and somehow form them into a competitive team to play against other summer camp programs around the city starting in just a few weeks. The kids ranged in age from 7-11 and all came from under privileged environments. None of them had ever touched a tennis racquet.
Everyone seemed super excited to be there except Benjie. He was clearly embarrassed by what I felt was an over the top butt chewing he had just received from the camp counselor.
The counselor said, “They are all yours. I’ll be back in two hours,” and abruptly left.
I took a big gulp, 20+ kids and me…a 16 year old kid myself.
As I introduced myself to everyone and explained what we would be doing everyone seemed super excited except for Benjie. He walked off and started to try and climb the chainlink fence that surrounded the court.
I called for him to come back and join us and he of course ignored me. One of the kids said, and I remember it like it was yesterday, “Oh forget about him. No one likes him and he’s always in trouble.”
Then, as he looked back. I saw it. It was the saddest look I think I’d ever seen. Total rejection on his face.
I had a stack of donated racquets for the kids to use and ultimately own at the end of the summer. The kids could barely contain their excitement to find out which one was going to be theirs. So I seized my opportunity.
“Hey Benjie, come here for a second.” But he continued to ignore me as he was now kicking the fence. “Benjie, I need your help.” His head snapped to attention. “I can’t hand out all these racquets by myself. Think you could help me?” There were some groans from the crowd at this suggestion. But before I could say “love 40,” Benjie was suddenly standing at attention at my hip with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.
We went over to the stack of racquets I had set out. I said before I could hand them out we all needed to know how to hold the racquet first. I told them it wasn’t a weapon and it couldn’t be swung like a baseball bat. So I demonstrated how to hold the racquet in my hand and then what a forehand and backhand looked like. Then I gave my racquet to Benjie and asked him to demonstrate what they had all just seen. The smile grew bigger.
He first tried slicing it like a sword. I stopped him. I explained that in order to touch this racquet or any racquet during our training sessions everyone had to do two things….1. respect the racquet because that’s what real tennis players do and 2. never swing it in a way that makes someone watching think you don’t know what to do with it.
The kids ate that up.
Most importantly I saw an immediate shift in Benjie who now looked at my racquet like the most precious thing he’d ever held in his hands. Benjie no longer had interest in cutting up to get attention. He realized all eyes were transfixed on him because he had the power of their attention. He held the tennis coach’s beautiful magic racquet in his hand and would get to demonstrate what they had all just been shown.
First he tried a forehand. It was awkward and he swung too hard and the racquet slipped through his hand and slid across the court. He was immediately embarrassed. Kids started laughing. He looked like he was preparing to get yelled at having just somehow damaged my fancy racquet.
I said “Hey there, that was a nice swing!” The kids stopped laughing. Then he looked up at me with a look of surprise in his eyes. I wasn’t mad? In fact I just complimented him for throwing my racquet?
“I didn’t swing it that well the first time I tried. Are you sure you aren’t a professional?” Then kids erupted in laughter as I walked over to get it. Benjie was laughing with them.
I handed the racquet back to him and said, “Let’s try it again but since you are so powerful we better slow it down just a little bit. Now show us that forehand.” He intentionally and slowly swung that racquet. Perfect form and a beautiful swing.
“Give Benjie a hand!” They clapped loud for him. He looked astonished. I’m sure that he never had anyone clap for him ever in his life. “Now show us that backhand!”
After a few minutes of demonstrating with Benjie I could tell the kids were amped and ready to get their hands on their own racquets. So I asked Benjie to go over and hand pick racquets for each of the kids. They looked at him with such anticipation and you could just tell the power dynamics of how they felt about him were shifting.
Even now I see that scene playing out in my mind like it was yesterday. Their view of Benjie was shifting. Of course I can tell you that now, at the age of 16 which I was, I wasn’t really appreciating the Ripple that was happening before my very eyes.
For the next several weeks we learned how to hit tennis balls, serve and the basics of the rules. Initially Benjie was back to his old tricks of being a disruption but I always reminded him that playing was a privilege and that we needed to listen and follow instruction in order to play. And that also meant in between training days. He needed to be respectful and listen to his counselors during our off days. I continually reminded him not to act out and always be respectful of his counselors and fellow campers because that’s what great leaders do – live by example. I told him I had higher expectations for him because I knew he could do it.
It was like fuel to him..our little side conversations.
I reminded him if I heard he wasn’t being a good leader he might not get to play in the upcoming tournaments. Something he and all of the kids were looking forward to very much.
The week of our first tournament the lead counselor led the group down for our final training session. She had heard these kids were hitting balls like real pros. She also had seen a gigantic shift in Benjie and couldn’t believe that tennis had had that kind of impact on him. So she came to see it for herself.
As they arrived at the court, they all begin stretching with Benjie taking the lead. She watched with curiosity. As they wrapped up I told Benjie to line them up and start tossing them balls. They lined up one at a time and he would bounce the ball to them and they would smash a forehand or backhand across the net. I told him, “Remember to encourage,” which then prompted him to compliment his teammates with whatever shot they had just hit.
“Great forehand Tommy!”
“Excellent backhand Stacy!”
The head counselor, I think her name was Lana, could not believe it. She walked over and said she didn’t even recognize these kids. Their confidence. Their skill. And Benjie, he was leading it all!
Three lessons came out of that summer for me.
- Sometimes people just need to have someone believe in them and they’ll go out of their way to not let that person down
- Give someone the room to perform and they will generally surprise you at how seriously they take that responsibility
- You always can overcome first impressions if you work hard enough
That little tennis squad entered five weeks of tournaments and won every single one of them. Benjie was undefeated in every match and won his age group for the end of the season singles tournament.
His fellow campers became teammates. His teammates became his friends.
And as if you couldn’t write this ending more perfectly, Benjie and his family moved years later to a smaller town in Northern New Mexico where Benjie made the high school tennis team and of course was the captain. Legend has it he won a lot more than he ever lost.
I am quite sure Benjie has long since forgotten that summer but I never will.
Nor will I ever forget Benjie and what he taught me…that Ripples really do exist.