“The fall hurt like hell, but I found grace in the wounds and a version of me I never knew.“Stephanie Bennett-Henry
I’ve come such a long way the past few years, in regards to personal growth and elevated thinking… and, yesterday, I caught a crystal clear glimpse of that.
While at the gym, in the middle of a workout, I told my trainer that “I’ve decided to give it up”… and he smiled at me, in obvious relief.
You see, 7 months ago, while feeling very high on life (and post-surgical painkillers), I made a hasty decision. I signed myself up for a 24-Hour/100-Mile Ultramarathon. I honestly believed, when the time came to run it, that I’d be in a position to do so. I mean, who doesn’t love a good comeback story? I know I do! And, at the time, I really wanted to be able to live this one out. But things have changed.
Despite the successful spinal surgery, months of disc regeneration treatments, physical therapy, continued chiropractic care, and 1-on-1 personal training, the cold, hard truth is, my body just isn’t the same… and neither is my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to the odds being stacked against me. Even when failure is imminent, I’ve never been one to throw in the towel. Win or lose, I stay the course, seeing things through to the very end. I would even go so far as to say that this is the reason why I’ve been so successful in accomplishing things I once believed I never actually could. Because I had the courage to try – and the determination to never give up.
The indoctrination of this critical life lesson, however, did not initially result in success for me. In fact, it came with a healthy dose of public humiliation and the bitter taste of blatant failure.
I was 16 years old and in my Junior year of high school. I had become a bit of a celebrity in our small school, being the first and only female to ever enroll in the Construction Trades program at Swiss Hills Vocational School in Woodsfield, Ohio. I excelled academically and, with the help of my classmates and the support of my teachers, was able to hold my own in the shop, as well as on the job site.
Every year, our school would hold a skills competition. The top 3 students in each vocational field would advance in competition against the winning students from other schools, at a regional competition. The winners at regionals would then advance to state. I don’t remember if the competition went nationwide or not because, as I am about to explain, I didn’t exactly make it very far.
Early on in the school year, I had become seriously ill. I tested positive for Mono and suffered such a severe immune reaction that I was hospitalized and forced to recover at home, quarantined for nearly 4 months. I had just recently returned to school and was hustling to get caught up with all that I had missed, so I wasn’t planning to participate. In fact, I hadn’t even considered it at all until, one day, as the window for student sign-ups quickly came to a close, my Carpentry Instructor expressed great disappointment that a “certain female student’s name” was still not on that list.
“I really had hoped to see one more person sign up for this.”, he said as he took down the final sign up sheet, looked over the list of names, and paced in front of the class.
I looked up from the textbook that I’d been reading as he turned to face us, his eyes now locking with mine.
“ME???”, I asked in disbelief. My face felt hot, as it flushed with embarrassment, and my heart began to race.
“Yes, YOU! You have the knowledge, you have the skill. It’s time to show them exactly what you can do!”
To my surprise, the guys in my class agreed. One of them even admitted that he was glad I hadn’t signed up yet, because he didn’t think he stood a chance in a head to head competition against me.
I was hesitant at first, but easily swayed because, again, who doesn’t love a good comeback story? And what an incredible statement it would be to the world (or at least to this little corner of Ohio) that anything boys can do, a girl can do better?
Mr. Palmer assured me that he would help me prepare. Mr. Ring, the senior class instructor (who I had the biggest schoolgirl crush on) agreed to help, as well. But, as the day of this competition approached, none of us knew the turn of events that were in store, as we assembled in the Lab and prepared to begin.
Classes were cancelled and the school campus was open to the public so that parents and family, students and teachers, alike, could all attend and show their support.
Before we began, the rules were read. We had 5 hours to complete a series of woodworking and framing projects. We were to frame four walls of a child sized playhouse – one with a window, one with a door, and connect them all together so that they stood erect, on their own accord. Finally, we needed to construct a stair string and attach it to the one of the outside walls. To our surprise, they then stated that no power tools were to be used in this initial phase of competition.
I could feel myself begin to panic. Never had we ever trained with hand tools, such as handsaws or chisels. I looked at the guys, but they just shrugged their shoulders like it was no big deal. Mr. Palmer rushed over to confer with the judges. His face was red. I could tell that he was mad. He walked away, shaking his head, and mouthed the words “I’m sorry”, making direct eye contact with me.
As we all moved to our assigned areas, I knelt down and opened my toolbox. I looked at my saw, all shiny and new, tucked securely inside the toolbox lid – just as it had been since the day the manufacturer produced it and placed it there. I crossed my arms against my body, as I stood to watch the boys. They, too, were opening up their toolboxes and preparing their work areas. I suddenly felt very small. I looked down at my own body then back up at the boys, now keenly aware of the size of their bodies, in comparison to mine. The bulging of “Chunk’s” shoulders muscles, biceps and forearms arms now seemed so profound – a stark contrast to my own waiflike and scrawny form.
Mr. Palmer approached the class, picked up the mic, and turned to face the crowd. He had a handful of long stick matches in his hand and he pointed to the Lab’s stockroom with the other. “The size of a sawhorse matters.”, he said, as the remaining students from our class (who had not signed up to compete) were pulling out multiple sets of sawhorses, all in various heights/sizes. “Since Aubrey is the only girl in this class, we have decided that she should choose her own equipment. The boys will then draw straws in order to assign the remaining sawhorses amongst them.”
A cold chill rushed up my spine and every hair on my body stood on end. My face felt hot and my legs felt weak. I hugged myself tighter as I walked towards Mr. Palmer, shaking my head.
“No… Mr. Palmer…”, my voice shook, “I’ll draw straws, just like the rest of them.”
I was so embarrassed and, as as he stared me down, the room stood very still and quiet.
“Chunk” walked up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Aubs, you’re gonna want the smaller sawhorses. You’ll need it for leverage with the handsaw.”
“No.”, I quivered. “I’ll draw my straw.”
I reached out to Mr. Palmer, as he extended the matchsticks. Our eyes locked, but neither of us said a word. I drew my straw and walked towards the sawhorse selection. As I found my matchstick’s counterpart, my heart sank even deeper inside my chest. I was now paired up with the tallest set of sawhorses in this entire shop. I did my best to show no reaction, as I grabbed a corner in each of my hands and dragged them back to my assigned work area.
The timer was set and the horn was blown, signaling the start of the competition. Someone turned on the radio, and another opened the garage bay doors. I held my copy of the project plans in my hands and read over the instructions. Surrounded by designated materials and tools, the music and sunlight filled the room, as each of us began to get to work.
I wish I could tell you that I found my groove. That the hours flew by, marked by succesful construction of these playhouse walls and lighthearted banter between me and the boys. The truth is, I immediately hit a wall. Never had I ever held a handsaw before, let alone been taught how to use one. So, as I watched Chunk from the corner of my eye, I did my best to imitate his ways.
A farmboy, born and raised, he was hefty and strong. Star player of our school’s football team, his movements were powerful, and every cut with the saw seemed effortless for him. I remember wishing we could have worked together as a team. As I was known to “measure twice and cut once” (using power tools!), Ryan (which is his real name) struggled with reading directions and often marked the wrong measurements. He made multiple cutting errors and had to redo his work. I, on the other hand, placed my 4×4 on the Empire State Building sized sawhorses that I’d been assigned, and began to make the most minuscule progress – sawing away the best that I could (which wasn’t very good at all) on this single piece of wood for the entire duration of this competition.
Am I over exaggerating? Maybe just a little bit as, nearly 30 years later, my memory may not be completely clear… but, you get the point. I didn’t make it very far. I continued to try, however, sawing away, listening to the music, wiping the sweat off my brow, and doing my best to ignore the coming and going of the faces in the crowd that formed our audience.
Blisters formed on my fingers and palm. The burning pain from one of these bursting open caused my grip to slip, slicing the saw through the flesh of my stabilizing hand. As blood trickled down my fingers and dropped upon the floor, I did not cry, nor did I panic. I actually felt a wave of relief wash over me, as my aching arms laid the handsaw down. I was escorted to medical, where they cleaned out and dressed my wounds. I returned to the competition floor with nearly two hours left to perform.
As I’m sure you can see, I did not succeed – not even by a long shot. But, upon conclusion of the competition, as the sound of the bell rang out signaling that the alotted time was up, I received a standing ovation from those in the crowd. My teachers and classmates, students and instructors from other areas of this vocational school, as well as, my dad for the mere fact that, even as I was losing, I simply refused to quit.
I used to remember this story fondly, recalling it from the archives of my mind, many times over, in the years since. Anytime I’ve doubted my ability to endure, I remembered that day and how I proved that I could.
But I’m different now – literally, everything has changed. My train of thought has completely jumped that track. I no longer resonate with this story and it’s clearly foreseeable ending. I no longer look at my decision to endure that day as a reference point, or roadmap, with which to decide my future. I no longer wear that day as a badge of honor upon my heart. In fact, when I look back now, my heart aches for the child that I was – struggling to find my place in this world, wanting to to make a stand, refusing to adapt or change when the scales of balance were so strongly tipped against me. If I could go back and speak to myself, I would hug the little girl that I was. I would hold her so tightly that she would feel our hearts beating as one, and I would tell her that “It’s okay”.
It’s okay to end the battle, to wave that white flag in surrender, and admit you’re in over your head. It’s okay to change direction, to change your mind, to turn completely back around – even if you’re already halfway there. It’s okay to leave the task unfinished, to refuse to pursue the goal – sometimes we have to try first, in order to simply see… that where we initially planned to go is not actually where we wish to be.
I’d hold that smaller, younger version of myself and I’d tell her that “It’s okay”.
Knowing everything that I know right now, I’d tell her… I’d tell ME… that it’s okay to quit, because not everything is always meant to be.