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A lesson in humility: Finding your place on the ice

A lesson in humility: Finding your place on the ice

Experts speaking at our Early Childhood Education Symposium have told us that humility is one of the most important traits a parent can teach a child. Upper School Director John Thornburg recently shared his view on humility with his parents. We share it today with a wider audience. 

By John Thornburg

I always admired my father’s ability to play hockey. As a young boy, growing up in Minnesota, hockey was an important part of our culture. We had season tickets to the Minnesota North Stars (the professional hockey team at the time), I spent hours during the winter at the local pond playing hockey with friends, and sat in large ice arenas with my sister watching my dad play in the Old Timer’s League. He was masterful on the ice and I wanted to be just like him.

The problem was I inherited my ankles from my mother’s side of the family. Sure, I could ice skate okay, but didn’t have the strength to perform as my father could.  No matter how many different pairs of skates and how much practice, I was subpar and struggled to become a decent ice skater. After an hour or so playing with friends my ankles would tire, I would end up taking my skates off and running around on the ice in my winter boots.  Truth be told, I was much better on the ice in my boots than my skates.

During my first year of teaching I earned extra money by driving our school’s hockey team to practice after school. I’d watch the boys play and was envious of their ability. It was difficult to be just a bus driver and to be the one to help the kids to lace their skates before going out on the ice. I wished that I could play with them. It was about this time I had a dream of wearing my dad’s hockey gear and suddenly having the ability to skate like him. I decided to ask him to mail his gear (he had retired from playing) to me so I could join the students. Surely a young man like myself with hockey ability would be able to rise to the occasion. I received his gear the next week.

The day I attempted to play real hockey is still etched in my mind very clearly. I came out on the ice in my father’s gear (out of date by a decade) and began to skate. Skating back and forth on the ice, stick in hand (helps me with my balance), looks normal to most. The students were immediately impressed their bus driver/teacher could actually skate. The puck was dropped and the practice scrimmage ensued.  I raced down the ice to defend as the coach, who was also playing, came towards me with the puck. Without the ability to deftly maneuver on the ice (my father’s gear not helpful at all), I careened into the unexpected coach. Fortunately, he had fifty or more pounds on me so the collision threw me into the boards, as he continued on.  He came back after the play was over to tell me, “You’re just good enough to be a nuisance.”  That was the end of my hockey career.  

Humility is an interesting character trait to consider. It is related to the term humus (earth) and literally means to be grounded. The word attempts to convey a state or condition where we have a modest opinion of ourselves.  We know who we are, have a grasp of our skills and talents, yet have a realistic view of our place and purpose. If we take being humble too far, we are in danger of having a low self-esteem or sense of worthlessness. If we aren’t humble enough, we can develop a superior opinion of ourselves and think we are better than others. Practicing true humility means staying between these two extremes. It means staying on what seems a fairly small mark which is why I think humility is a very difficult character trait to master. We need to know our place on the ice, so to speak.

Our goal is to find that place where true humility resonates through our being. We all have gifts and talents. We all can do things better than the next person and someone out there can do it better than us. Each of us is a designed mixture of abilities and aptitudes not found in anyone else. Comparing ourselves to others, as hard as it is not to do so, isn’t an effective measure of who we are since no one else is like us. Striving to develop a talent or to reach an accomplishment, as a way to bring self-worth, is not long lasting since we already have this worth within us. What we accomplish is a reflection of who we are and does not make us someone else. Each of us has great potential and worth so the ability to be great at something should not surprise us.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that we aren’t as proficient at some things, even if we are wearing our father’s hockey gear. We can’t be someone else.

Humility is elusive because it demands we value ourselves for who we are and temper this understanding with the belief we are to bring our gifts and talents for something larger than ourselves. We are part of a bigger plan. Our interactions with others, the tasks we accomplish and our drive to belong and be significant all stem from this purpose. To practice true humility means to be at peace with ourselves, with others and with God. It means to know our place and align with others so we are in the best position to be a blessing as well as to receive blessings.

After my hockey debut, the coach asked if I would skate on the other rink with the eighth grade manager. The young boy was an up and coming skater and needed someone to practice with since he wasn’t allowed to practice with the high school team.  So for several weeks a 5-foot3 middle student used me as fodder as we played one on one. He beat me every day, but we both became better and I even scored a few times. It was good to find my place on the ice.

Learn more:
•    How to start an Unselfie revolution: Michele Borba, Ed.D., educational psychologist, former classroom teacher, parenting expert and best-selling author, talks about why empathetic kids are more successful in an all-about-me world. 

•    What matters most in teaching our children: American psychologist Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. says teaching character is what really matters

•    10 ways to teach your child humility

About the Author
John Thornburg is the Upper School Director at The Summit Country Day School. He has a passion to facilitate student growth in all facets of their lives. A student’s spiritual formation, coupled with an excellent educational program, guides his leadership.