Any teacher will tell you that out of the thousands they see, once in a while, a superstar comes along. Be it piano, gymnastics, singing, boxing, or, in my case, teaching horseback riding, a superstar is hard to come by. Classroom teachers will tell you that to be an academic standout, you must have the ability to sit for long hours and read voraciously as well as have special parenting.
I saw many outstanding students when I was an English teacher. Even when I taught elementary school, I could spot future students who had the potential to go very far academically. Not all outstanding students, however, become superstars.
It all has to do with something I think of as "stick-to-it-ive-ness.'' The ability to see an activity through to its completion is often missing with the demands put upon youth in a culture that emphasizes a quick fix.
Not so for Emily Sawtelle, a young girl who came to me when she was 10 with her parents, Terry and Alan, as well as her adorable little sister, Sophia. Like so many of the thousands who have come to me for horseback riding, Emily had the usual stars in her eyes regarding the world of horses. This is not unusual: I have seen far too many little girls who have seen far too many movies about horses and simply don't realize that movies are often make-believe.
Riding was not, for Emily, an easy fix and the first months were "tricky.'' Would she be able to withstand the rigors of what is perhaps one of the most physically difficult activities there is, as well as one of the most unpredictable not only for children but also for adults?
Emily is now 14 and well on her way. Most youngsters I see do not even manage to perform a competent trot (I liken a horse trotting to a fast walk) much less cantering (a slow run). It can takes some kids years to master the most basic of tasks. But we would see something far more special with Emily that had little to do with horseback riding and everything to do with humanity: Emily demonstrated early on an ability to work with various personalities of little girls and boys unlike most youngsters her age.
I challenge children and adults far beyond what they may believe they can do. That quality in me has been both a blessing and a curse. For I have run into many people who simply do not have the drive it takes to complete an activity, to see it through to its end, and become a star at it. Naturally, a teacher never really knows what a parent wants: Some parents relish in their child being challenged. Others do not want their child challenged and may use euphemistic wording like, "He needs to go at his own pace."
These demands which parents continually place on teachers make the art of teaching quite difficult because a teacher somehow tries to find the balance between what mommy, most often, and daddy, less often, wants, what the child needs, and what the activity demands. Emily Sawtelle, after years of hard work, managed to reach the finish line. Fortunately, for me, her parents provided a "hands off'' approach and let me direct the activity, one I had worked at since I was 28.
Emily's riding ability is dwarfed by her ability to be empathetic, and we started to let her work around little children assisting us with minor skills children needed. The youngsters enjoyed coming out to work with Emily, who would become a sort of Big Sister to these girls.
Emily's soft voice, calm and encouraging attitude worked well with kids who were often in awe of these large animals: Even our smallest horse looked like a giant to 6-year-old. Children don't simply become like Emily on their own. I am convinced sound parenting will bring out the best in a child.
When you work with large animals, you have few vacations, need constant help, and your budget is always in the red. Married couples who own businesses together know the strain that results. We were fortunate in finding Emily's parents, who were always there for us during various emergencies, another omnipresent issue for the stables. Alan, Emily's dad, helped me put on a new roof, put in a tile floor, dig out our snow-covered vehicles, and just about any other odd job we had.
Being able to work with people will carry Emily far in life. She scores at the top of what we now know as "emotional intelligence.''
This is the ability to have empathy, to reach common understanding, to balance opposite attitudes, to realize we're all in the boat together, to have patience. It is a key component to that most important ability of all, one which few adults even reach: Critical thinking. When we can use nonlinear thinking skills, we become adept at analysis, evaluation and synthesis — skills which are lacking not simply in the greater population but in our leaders as well.
Emily, her parents, her sister and we are all proud that Haverhill has such a youngster in its midst. She decided on an environmental career start at Essex Agricultural School instead of remaining in the Haverhill school system, which needs to do all it can to retain such standouts as Emily Sawtelle and not lose them to other systems.
For all of us, Emily is the gift that keeps on giving.
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Michael Veves lives in Haverhill. He is a frequent contributor to the Gazette.