When is an Olympics Gold Medal not an Olympics Gold Medal?

When is an Olympics Gold Medal not an Olympics Gold Medal?
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As we near the end of the Winter Olympics, I'm reminded of one of my favorite stories about my brother Dave. Yes, Dave of the Herpes story fame. No, Dave doesn't have Herpes. Read the story.

Dave is a little more than three years younger than me and probably a million times smarter than me, which is saying something because I am pretty smart. In spite of his wicked smarts, Dave had a very difficult time reading as a child. As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that the Superkids Reading Program that was taught at his school, but was not taught when I went through just a few years before him, wasn't taught to him in a way he could understand. Or more simply, his learning style was different than the one-size-fits-all reading curriculum of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I'm not criticizing Superkids; I'm sure it's been successful for many many children since 1978 when it was developed. It just didn't work for Dave because he learned differently and, as a result, reading was a constant struggle. Even though our parents read to us constantly, we had far more books than toys, and our mom was a remedial reading teacher, Dave was slower to develop reading skills than other kids his age. Fortunately, our mom worked with him and tailored lessons to fit his learning style that finally allowed him to break through his inability to read.

I share this backstory, not to criticize my brother, but to give you the background for how this fits into the Olympics. In fact, no one respects my brother more than I do. I'm constantly in awe of how smart he is and how he fought to overcome his early reading struggles. All these years later, you'd never know of his difficulties and I believe you too would be impressed by how brilliant he is.

After a number of years of struggle and tears and extra lessons by our incredibly patient mom, Dave finally broke through and began reading. Although it remained a struggle, he could read and that was something to be celebrated. Because of his difficulties, however, he hated reading.

One day in fourth grade, Dave came home from school super excited and just bouncing off the walls. He proudly announced at dinner that, in conjunction (my word, not his at age 9) with the Winter Olympics that were happening, his school was holding the Reading Olympics and that the person who read the most books in each grade would win an Olympic Gold Medal. And he had decided that he would win.

My parents were on the floor with shock. No one had ever seen him excited about reading, but Dave was a pretty competitive and anything that got him excited about reading was viewed as a very happy turn of events for everyone.

Dave spent the next month or so reading everything he could get his hands on. He dutifully recorded the books he read on his Reading Olympics Form and my parents signed off, certifying that he'd read each book himself. I'm fairly certain he had no idea how many books the other kids read; he just kept reading. One thing I've always known about Dave is that when he sets his mind to something, he achieves it.

Finally, the big day arrived. A school assembly was scheduled for the afternoon and, with heightened anticipation, each class made its way into the multi-purpose room (aka the gym, the lunchroom, and the theater, so you know, it had that special sweaty gym clothes scent). Some parents even lined the outer perimeter to see if their little genius won a prize. Of course, our parents were both in the audience proud as they could be of Dave. It didn't really matter to them whether he won a prize or not; they were too proud of his new love of reading to focus on anything else.

Starting with the kindergarten class, awards were passed out and cheers erupted. Sitting on pins and needles, Dave anxiously waited for the fourth grade to be called. He was certain that he'd won an Olympic Gold Medal and he couldn't wait to collect his valuable prize. After what probably seemed like an eternity, the fourth grade classes were called to the front and the Bronze and Silver Medal winners were announced.

A hushed silence fell over the multi-purpose room and, for Dave, I'm sure time stood still. With our parents standing against the wall in the back, the Gold Medal Winner was announced . . . . Dave Gardner. Mom and Dad couldn't have been prouder. Their son, who just a couple of years earlier had not even been reading at grade level, was now the Reading Olympics Gold Medal Winner for the fourth grade.

Dave was jumping with joy. His excitement could not be contained.

And then the principal presented his with his Olympic Gold Medal.

Dave took one look at it and said loudly, "This isn't GOLD! It's PLASTIC!"

He came home from school that day mad as I've ever seen him. Mom tried her best to spin his award as symbolic and that his true award was his new love of reading, but how do you explain that to a 9-year-old? Dave had been told he would receive an Olympic Gold Medal and they'd bait-and-switched him. He threw that Gold Medal in the garbage along with the Certificate of Achievement documenting his award. Mom fished them both out of the trash and hung them both in Dave's closet, which is where they remain to this day.

In the aftermath of the Reading Olympics, Dave avoided reading at all costs and he deception of the Gold Medal that wasn't gold stayed with him for years. Fortunately, he eventually outgrew that and he now reads more than anyone I've ever known. His tastes in literature today are typically intellectual and non-fiction and devours books that challenge his beliefs and open his mind to new ways of thinking.

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    Jessica Gardner

    A native of Chicago's Northwest Suburbs and resident of the North Shore, Little Merry Sunshine comes by her name honestly. The story goes that as a child, she was always so happy that she even slept with a smile on her face. Her mom nicknamed her Little Merry Sunshine. It stuck, along with her insatiable desire to focus on the good in the world and to leave it a little better than she found it. She does this by sharing her passions and dreams, what inspires her, and maybe you too, and furthering the discussion about how we can listen to our better angels. You can reach her at LittleMerrySunshineCN[at]WowWay[dot]com.

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