People can, do change for better

By By DICK USHER Community Columnist

Sometimes in elementary school I was tormented by bullies. Harassment escalated when I went into junior high and continued for the first year of high school.

I was a small scrawny kid who was blessed with pretty good hand-eye coordination, a strong throwing arm, a tough fall-away basketball shot and decent speed.

I lurked on the fringes of the "real" school athletes, too small and uncoached to be on the football or basketball team but just talented enough not to be ignored completely. My best sport was baseball but no baseball was played in city schools.

I was afraid of fighting. I had too little strength to hold my own unless I went berserk. Sometimes after weeks of being harassed unmercifully I would succumb to blind rage. I learned to use that rage in a premeditated way -- I planned my sudden revenge fight-backs.

Unexpected rage served me well.

As a high school freshman in a hangout snack shop across the street, I was suddenly smashed in the back by the biggest, strongest football player of the day. It hurt so badly that tears burst from my eyes.

In that moment I pivoted and hit him in the face as hard as I could with my six-ounce Coke bottle. His nose was bloodied, and he was stunned by my violent reaction. Shaking all over, I left and walked to my bicycle.

As I rode home that day I thought about what I had done and what I seemed to be becoming. I didn't much like it.

In many ways, my blind rage worked against bullies but it took a toll on me. I thought, "I have some beliefs that are important to me, I want them as guideposts in my life. I believe what I have been taught at 12th Street Baptist Church."

The examples that seemed to be set by the life and teachings of Jesus -- love for one another, turning the other cheek -- were crucial to my idea of what it meant to live a decent life. I believed in my heart the core teachings of Christianity.

And I changed. It was not instant but it was constant. My awareness was heightened, and often I could simply avoid being harassed or tormented. I began to grow away from violence as a way to resolve conflict. I began to question my own behavior, and gradually I grew as a peacemaker.

We each can change.

Rarely, one may experience sudden, profound change from the inside out. There can be experiences so intense and powerful that they almost reconstruct one's awareness, much like the slight turn of a kaleidoscope will change its complete pattern.

More often we change in less dramatic ways using our "will power." We change our behavior because we are willing to make the effort.

But such change takes constant monitoring for we can sustain it only if we continually keep our mind on it.

Sometimes such a decision to change our actions may affect our hearts as well.

During spring training in 1947, Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese was asked to sign a petition distributed by Dixie Walker and other Dodger teammates demanding that "Jackie Robinson be removed from the ball club."

Reese refused to sign the petition -- he knew after a few workouts that Robinson was a fine ballplayer who could help the Dodgers win. Pee Wee told his teammates that baseball was his livelihood and Robinson could help them all be more successful.

He chose to play with a Negro teammate even though in 1947 such integration was strongly opposed by many if not most players.

Starting in 1947, Jackie Robinson played with the Dodgers for nine seasons. When he retired in 1956, the club had won six pennants, a World Series and finished second the other three times. Along the way the relationship between Robinson and Reese changed from one of supportive toleration in the name of team success to one of genuine, deep friendship.

Pee Wee Reese decided he would act for the benefit of his career and his ball club, and then his heart was changed for life.

Dick Usher grew up in Paducah and is a retired Murray State University professor. He lives with Mary, his wife of 55 years, on his granddad's old farm near Fairdealing. Reach him at ushmd01@yahoo.com.