21 August 2008

of feeding trees, east st louis, and nastia liukin's sneer

After we planted the litchi tree in the front yard, I had several people tell me when to start “feeding it”. I resisted this language altogether, as the idea of feeding a tree seemed foreign…and a little stupid. But is it?

Are trees like humans? (Now I realize that this is a limited metaphor, but I am going to go with it…) Would a tree raised only on what nature provides be stronger and more resilient? Conversely, would there be any damage done by babying the tree a bit? Would I raise a spoiled, soft, selfish tree that didn’t understand the larger fabric around it? Would the first stiff wind knock it down?

I guess this all came up in my brain as I watched the Olympic Track and Field events on Tuesday night. Stef and I watched as Dawn Harper won the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles. Dawn Harper was an unlikely winner, as the prohibitive favorite stumbled over the 9th hurdle and finished 7th. Harper was also an unlikely winner due to her personal circumstances.

Dawn Harper comes from East St. Louis, Illinois, a suburb just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri. East St. Louis happens to be one of the most dangerous and downtrodden cities in America. Murder rates are double those of New Orleans. Half of the residents under 18 years old live below the poverty line. Per capita income hovers just above $10,000. Not exactly a place that screams opportunity.

So, after a week of watching teenaged specialists dive and tumble and generally amaze the world with the skills they acquired with years of expensive private lessons and personal training, it was exciting to watch a girl from East St. Louis standing on top of the world. It was a victory for people all over the world who grow up without their own diving coach or gymnastics studio. It was a victory for anyone who lacks an Olympic-medal-winning Dad or a blank check to throw at swimming-centric boarding schools. It was a victory of resilience.

Many gold-medal winners talk about their feelings of validation, about all of the hours of work finally paying off. They speak as if that chapter of life, of pursuit and determination, is finally closing. I like to think that Dawn Harper will talk about her triumph differently, as a beginning. I imagine that kids all over East St. Louis walk a little taller today, hopeful that even poor kids can accomplish great things. Maybe she’ll speak at a few school assemblies and tell the kids about her time at UCLA and how her education means more to her than even the medal. Maybe a few more kids will attempt to use natural athletic ability to find empowerment in education. Maybe…

None of this will change the fact that the poor have a much deeper hole to climb out of than the rich, at least when it comes to finding success as the world judges it. But for a little while, there will again be hope of something brighter, something greater. And there is nothing as powerful as hope.

So, I continue my debate. Should I buy special food for my little litchi tree or care for it more simply? Do I want a Nastia Liukin tree, sneering at other trees and dissatisfied with anything but the best? Or do I want a Dawn Harper tree, humble and happy and feeling lucky to win anything?

You know, I am beginning to wonder if this is about the litchi tree at all…

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