I believe in the power of third place.
When I was in the 7th grade I won the first and only ribbon for athletic performance of my entire life. I won third place in a long jump contest at the required school track and field event. As I recall there were only three contestants. But I didn’t come in last. No, I had won third place. I kept that ribbon. I found it the other day in a box of childhood treasures. I had worked hard for that third place ribbon and I was very proud of the amount of effort that had gone into it. That third place ribbon symbolized the effort and pride in doing a job as well as I possibly could, even if others could do it faster or farther or easier.
Now I know that my poor vision affected my ability to track a ball or visualize myself in space. I didn’t know that then. I only knew that kids had teased at me for years shouting “easy out” when I came to bat. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to try because I hated being laughed at. I avoided any kind of competitive athletics. At recess I lay in the grass telling stories with my friends to avoid being chosen last for a pickup game. My 7th grade gym teacher Miss Jones would have none of that. She looked at our class of giggly girls with her gimlet eye and announced firmly that there were three rules.
“You had to suit up. You had to play fair. You had to do your best…” She did not say you had to win. Her rules are good ones for life.
“You had to suit up” is about showing up. Participating in life. Being present to the world. Taking the class. Reading the book, Voting, Taking a walk to enjoy the beauty of spring. Folding the laundry and all the chores that come with family life. You have to take part in it all to be truly alive.
“You had to play fair” in the 7th grade meant not cheating on a test or calling a ball in to score a point when it was really out and only you could see. Now playing fair means considering others point of view, not take questionable income tax deductions and making decisions that are good enough to be able to sleep at night.
“You had to do your best”. Not any one else’s best. Just your best. In some things my best was elegant and easy and successful. In some things it definitely was not. Reading and academics come naturally to me. I find joy in learning something new and in the work of studying. I have made a career of learning and teaching. I love to read, to puzzle out new problems, take them apart and put the pieces together another way to see what comes out.
I still can’t throw a ball well. But at the age of 51 I finally learned to catch one. My son taught me. At 8 years old he is the natural athlete I will never be. He glows as he catches my grounders. And he cheers when I catch his pop flies. He is as excited as I am that I have a new skill and a new way to participate in his world.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as I hope and plan and prepare for. I do the best I can and finances don’t gel, the plumbing backs up, I don’t get the contract. But thanks be to God for all the people in my life who taught me that I am not a failure. I might win third place but I will never lose the race.