Giant in the Crowd

Giant in the Crowd

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Giant in the Crowd

Since drama is made up of life, teaching drama gives one the opportunity to teach life. However, I don’t think I ever taught my students as much as I was privileged to learn from them. One such student was the giant named Jimmy, who walked into my class in 1963.

Jimmy was one of the “special education” students who was being mainstreamed, and I felt privileged to have him. As it turned out, he was most definitely “special,” as he was to educate us all.

Drama students are great fun; they are creative, spontaneous, outspoken and disarmingly honest. However, these very qualities sometimes get in the way of a thing called consistency. So it was that after two months, the only student who had completed every single assignment was Jimmy. I could only imagine how hard it was for him at times. He was fighting muscular coordination, as well as speech and vision problems, but he never shirked from any responsibility.

I constantly bragged about him being “excuse-free.” One day I called on him, and he looked back at me, smiled and told me he was not ready to perform. I detected a slight twinkle in his eye. I asked him to stay after class for a moment.

“Jimmy, you were ready, weren’t you?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

“Why, Jim? You did the work, you deserve the credit.”

He shuffled his feet, looked up, smiled and said, “Well, I didn’t want the other kids to feel bad. I have more free time than they do, and I didn’t want any of them to get discouraged.”

As the year progressed, the class became more aware of the good fortune in having a genius in the art of humanity in their midst. I have asked this question to countless groups in seminars and the reply is always the same: When you see someone crying, you go up to them and usually say something. What is it you say? Everyone replies, “What’s wrong?” Jimmy never said that. His question was always, “Can I help?”

One day, I asked him why he never asked the same question everybody else did.

“Well, Mr. Schlatter,” he said, “I never thought much about it, but I guess I figure that it’s not my business ‘what’s wrong.’ But if I can help them fix what’s wrong, that is my business.”

We ended every year with a speech and drama banquet modeled after the Academy Awards. The students wanted to give Jim some special recognition for all he had meant to them.

I gave him a poem to read called Myself by Edgar Albert Guest, which I felt best reflected his unspoken but totally lived philosophy.

We had saved his moment to be near the end, and after he was introduced, he approached the front of the auditorium without his book. He wasn’t going to read it; he had memorized it. He smiled and in a slow deliberate manner, touched our hearts as he read:

I have to live with myself and so I want to be fit for myself to know.

I want to be able as days go by to look myself straight in the eye.

I don’t want to stand with the setting sun and think of things I have or haven’t done.

I want to go out with my head erect.

I want to deserve all men’s respect, I want to be able to like myself.

I don’t want to look at myself and know that I’m a bluster, a bluff and an empty show.

I can never hide myself from me. I see what others may never see.

I know what others may never know.

I can never fool myself and so whatever happens, I want to be self-respecting and conscience-free.

First there was total silence, then thunderous applause. Two students went to the podium and hugged Jimmy, after which they gave him a trophy that was inscribed:

To Jimmy

Thank you for the
Honor and Privilege
of knowing you.

Class of ’64

But the story does not end there. In the audience was an eighth grade girl named Cathy Aquino. Over the summer, she wrote a speech about Jimmy entitled Giant in the Crowd. She delivered it in speech competitions throughout California and Arizona. More important than the awards she won was the fact that during the course of the year, three girls told her that her speech convinced them to go into the field of special education.

In 1992, I was invited to a reunion of that class. The students had made a special effort to make sure Jimmy was there.

One of the women who had graduated with that group was telling me of her daughter, who had been born with multiple birth defects, and the great plans she and her husband had for that girl’s life.

“Your voice is filled with such courage and optimism, it inspires me,” I said.

“What do you expect?” she replied, looking across the room in Jimmy’s direction. “I went to school with a giant.”

Jack Schlatter

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