Up All Knight is a series that celebrates the excellent, breathtaking, exciting, wonderful things in our world. It is about changing perspectives. (To read the opening installment, click here!) Instead of dwelling on the things we hate that bring us down, it is a chance to find things to bring some levity and joy and encouragement. If you have any suggestions that our resident UCF Knight David Staples can tackle, feel free to email him at UpAllKnight_SL@icloud.com. Join us on this journey up!
This was exactly what I was talking about when I launched this article series. The horrible things in this world are just too much to dwell on. Never mind the whirlwind of political garbage and general ugliness that runs rampant. It is stuff like this that is more painful and horrible than all that other stuff put together. Last Saturday, my son was at a Houston area band competition with the Clements High School Ranger Band. We got an email from the school with “Sad News to Report from Clements High School.” Well, that’s the most terrifying thing a parent can see when your kid is on the other side of town. Then there was that awful moment of relief mixed with guilt when you see it wasn’t your kid they were talking about. Instead it was a senior on the swim team who died that morning after completing a race. It still felt like a punch in the gut. I didn’t know this kid; my son didn’t know him either. But we can all agree that there is something inherently disturbing about a 17 or 18 year old athlete having his life snuffed out.
I know, this certainly doesn’t sound like a very positive article. “You’re bumming me out, Knight David. Where’s the good stuff?” On one level, there is no good angle. There is no positive way to spin a high school senior dying at a swim meet. It is awful and painful and wrong. It would normally have gone into the heap of things weighing down on a person. And that is understandable. Think about how we would have interacted with this story if it was in a far away city. We would have seen the click bait headline: “Local high school swimmer dies. Are your children safe in a pool?” We would have read the saddening details. Then we would not hear anything else and be left to just deal with the news. In this case, though, I got to see first hand what teenagers are capable of when given the opportunity.
High school students are notoriously self-centered, immature, and troublesome. We all probably have images of punk high school kids driving too fast or acting stupid at the store or being rude to their parents. And those students certainly do exist. I work with a test preparation company and teach thousands of high school students every year. There is that minority of entitled kids and bratty kids. However, I have found that teenagers have an incredible capacity for love and hope and strength – if given the chance.
Clements High School is not a normal high school. It is extremely competitive academically. It values its fine arts programs over its athletics. And it is unbelievably ethnically diverse. We love the school. The principal is fantastic. He knows the pressure so many of the kids are under to perform well academically. So his initial speech to parents included these lines: “We have some absolutely incredible students at this school. This stat may surprise you. 90 percent of them are NOT in the top 10 percent.” He wants parents and students to understand that these kids are incredibly gifted and valuable, even if they are not the top of their class. They will go to great schools even if they are not in the top 10. I was appreciative to hear a principal say those things – finding intense value in the life of a student and not just in their numbers. Maybe that is why the students do things differently than other schools. For example, the dance squad has two members with Down’s Syndrome. It isn’t like these two girls dress up and sit on the bench. Every game at halftime, the dance group goes on the field to perform. And those two girls go out with the team and perform with them. The other girls take care of them and guide them. It is absolutely wonderful to see.
When the news of Brian’s passing hit the school, the entire student body took it hard – and then responded. Dozens of students changed their profile pics to balloons flying into the sky. The students all wore blue on the Tuesday they returned to school. (This happened over a long weekend for the students.) There were multiple memorials for Brian. But what really struck me happened last night at the first football game since the tragedy. Clements’ football team is not a powerhouse. They play hard every game and usually play tough all through the first half. Then things get rocky. The way a Texas football game goes is a little different than I am familiar with. Both schools have giant inflatable tunnels for the teams to run through. They are deflated during the first half. At halftime, both bands will come out and perform – sometimes ten minute shows! Then they reinflate the tunnels, put up a big banner with artwork encouraging the team to go, fight, win, and the team runs through the banner for the second half.
This time, things went differently. When the Clements band finished their show, they didn’t march off the field to a drum cadence. Instead they silently walked to new marks on the field. When they were done, they had spelled out BRIAN across the entire field. Hardly anyone knew what they were doing as they were marching. (I knew because my son had told me the day before.) When everyone realized it, the crowd all stood up and applauded for a solid minute. At the same time, the tunnel had been reinflated. The pep squad that holds up the banner was struggling to get an extra tall banner up in the heavy winds last night. Right when the band finished the banner got upright. It was a giant painting of Brian swimming with balloons overhead and “Brian you will alway be a STAR in our hearts” on the bottom. It was a beautiful sentiment. The football players all lined up to run through, and then they stopped and walked around the banner on both sides. As a team, the knelt down in front of the banner, took off their helmets and raised them to the picture of Brian. Students all through the stands were crying at the offerings. The PA announcer was very subdued as he said, “A beautiful tribute from the Clements student body for Brian Yuen, their fellow Ranger who passed away.” It was one of the most genuine expressions of grief and love that I have ever seen. I know that adults like teachers and coaches helped in the planning and execution of the moment, but to see hundreds of students in these groups – many who did not know Brian personally – come together to pay tribute was a very touching moment. I’m not ashamed to say I got a little bit teary as it unfolded.
The thing that hit me, that made this worth an Up All Knight installment was the way these students took this horrible loss and showed how much value was in that young life. Virtually every student at that school felt the loss, the sting of mortality. They came together to celebrate what this young man meant and what he stood for. They brought hope and dignity to a painful and desperate situation. It doesn’t make things better or bring Brian back. It won’t erase the pain that his friends and family feel over his loss. But it acknowledges the fact that a person of great value was lost. It is okay to hurt. It is okay to grieve. To me, that was a powerful message to embrace and celebrate. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the worst elements of humanity that swirl around us like a crap tornado. There are moments when I just want to scream and punch the computer screen when I read the latest fiasco that is uncovered. Instead, it is better to do as these students did. Together, they cried out in their silent tributes, “Life, there are times you flat out suck. You rob us of our friends, our health, our security. But you will NOT rob us of our hope, our love, our memories.” The adults in the stands watched their sons and daughters fight back against the worst life has to offer. And if they were anything like me, which I am pretty sure they were, those parents had to feel immense pride watching their kids in that moment. That is how I want my son to live his life – strong in the face of tragedy, hopeful in the face of despair, compassionate in the face of loss. And I am so glad that he gets to be in a school where those values are embraced and encouraged. It gives me hope that maybe things aren’t so bad, when we kids like this will soon be adults. They can teach us all some important values.