It was the end of my sixth grade year, and Field Day was just around the corner. This was the moment when each home room got a chance to prove their prowess on the athletic field of battle. My class hadn’t taken any chances. We were stocked with athletic talent, and wanted the others to cower in fear, so we had special blue T-shirts made up at the local sporting goods store. I had the words “Road Hog” printed on the back of mine, to be extra menacing. The hot, southern spring day brought with it the obligatory excitement, but as the individual events wore on, it became obvious that our class wasn’t fairing as expected. Word slowly trickled over from the gym that our jump ropers and obstacle course racers had come in second or third, my 4X100 relay team dropped our baton in the final leg, giving up a solid lead, and even our shot put thrower, the strongest kid in the school, had flubbed and gotten disqualified. As we gathered for the mid-day break, we were dejected. The blunt dullness of evaporated hopes seemed to reach out from each 12-year-old and pat the other on the back as we wandered aimlessly around our corner of the gym barely noticing our popsicles.
I had gotten there early that day to help set up the course, however, and one of my jobs was to establish the score board. As I came into the gym at break time, and learned what we had all feared, I was struck by the heaviness of my classmates. Never one to take “no” for an answer, I began to review the situation. In that moment, I remembered that the individual scores taken together were fewer points than the three games remaining, all of which were team games. I made sure that my calculations were accurate by dragging a few of my classmates over to the score board. Surprisingly, their reaction was much less enthusiastic than mine. They, I suppose, had settled into their emotional stupor, and were happy to accept the embarrassment of defeat. As we moved back into the group, however, and I started to spread the news, the zombie-like behavior of our team began to change. “Well, of course we’ll win the tug-of-war” they all began to calculate, “We’ve got Robbie”. Robbie was the kid who hit puberty before even many of the girls in our year, so he was an unbeatable anchor on a tug-of-war team. We turned our sites on the other two team games, then, deciding our strategy and our chances of success.
It’s been thirty years since that hot day in May, but I can still smell the acrid punch of the well-used rope, still feel its bite on my hands as I stared around at my team mates feeling one last dose of encouragement before the whistle blew, can still feel my feet slip when I first engaged and the quick panic that led me to leap up and grab the rope with double vigor, and I will never forget the sweat-covered, spent face of Robbie Carruba looking stunned and then slowly dawning on him that we had won the day as our team lept around sharing high fives and awkward tweener hugs. Moments like that, team moments, shape who we are.
This week Laurel and I celebrate our one year anniversary as Angelenos. It’s charming, perhaps, that my 6th Grade Field Day experience comes to me every time I feel at loss for community. We’ve found lovely people in LA, and are thoroughly enjoying settling in to new experiences, but suffice it to say, the kinds of team building that it took to win Field Day don’t happen over night, and we are still settling into our people.
People are fond of saying that there is no “I” in “TEAM”, but, I’m happy to report that there is an “I” in “CHOIR”, without which you only have a “CHOR” (I know, you need an “e” to really make that work, but go with me. . .). When we as team leaders allow ourselves to find ways to help each individual explore their personal potential first, we may find that they all fail spectacularly, or they may succeed gloriously. We may also find that once they have discovered something about who they are, they are much more willing and able to begin to depend upon the collective power of those around them, and that’s where the real magic begins to happen.
Incidently, just as there is an "I" in "CHOIR", there is an "US" in "CHORUS", with the same "CHOR" to be found without it. The order of recognition is key. There is no question that when singing in a group, you're surrounded by others. However, knowing that you are working with other people, and feeling as if that group is a team, an "US", are different steps. In my experience, when each individual feels nurtured and free to explore their voice within the safety of the group, they find themselves wedded to the idea of being an inseparable part of the team. When the “I”s begin to depend upon the "US" from a personal place, we as leaders can start to guide them to become a true team, and that team, by extension, nurtures and feeds those individuals such that they become whole.