Passing the Baton
We were on our feet, ready to begin cheering. Stationed around the track were several teams with four different runners on each team. The annual Halifax County Elementary School Olympics was underway.
A school’s fastest runner is not always an honor roll student. In this way, the Elementary Olympics gives some students an opportunity for the recognition they would not otherwise receive.
Students from schools in the county compete against each other in the annual Olympics. I enjoy the camaraderie and the competitive spirit. In addition, I love watching classmates encourage and support each other, even when the medal goes to another school.
For several years, I’ve been there in the stands, watching the drama unfold. This was another one of those lump-in-my-throat-tears-in-my-eyes kind of day.
How like life this is, I thought.
As parents, we attempt to prepare our kids for life. Initially, we carry the baton for them, and then we run together for a little while. Finally, it is time to let go of the baton and trust them to carry on. We pass the baton on to our children, students, or fellow-citizens and the race of life continues.
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At the whistle’s blow, the race was on. The crowd roared, each student cheering for his team.
“Go, go, GO!” we yelled, clapping and waving our arms.
The first runner threw his chest forward and set his face to the wind, his arms relaxed as his clasped the baton in his hand. Up ahead, around the curve in the track, was his teammate. Like a restless horse, the second runner waited, prancing. His arms were outstretched long before the runner could arrive with the baton.
As the first runner came closer, his teammate began inching forward, keeping his eye on the runner and the baton. For a few split seconds, they moved simultaneously, working together to pass and receive the baton from runner to runner. Increasing his pace, the race continued as the second runner carried the baton around the track. Chest forward and face to the wind, he ran just as the first runner had run, arms held readily, feet pounding the pavement, adrenaline surging through his veins.
In what seemed like a few moments, the second runner was nearing his teammate, the third runner. Once again, the baton was passed smoothly as the two moved side by side for a few seconds. Effortlessly, the third runner sped away. With his chest forward and his face to the wind, he ran with his eye on his goal: the fourth and last runner. But the baton slipped out of his hand and fell to the pavement. The cheering stopped, and we waited with bated breath.
Wasting not a moment, his legs carried him back to the baton; then sprinting harder with his chest forward and his face to the wind, he moved toward the final runner. The roar of his classmates spurred him on. His legs moved sure and strong, pounding on the pavement, daring anyone to impede his movement in the final feet of the race. Would his blunder cost him the race?
Would his team jeer at him or support him now that he had dropped the baton?
The passing of the baton to the last runner was swift and sure. The crowd never really saw the baton change hands. We were on our feet with one loud, continuous roar as the final runner’s feet pounded the pavement. There was only one goal in mind: the finish line.
In an old English tradition, a bell was tolled to let villagers know when someone had died. Reflecting on this tradition, John Donne wrote the poem No Man is an Island. Don’t ask, he said, for whom the bell tolls when you hear that bell.
“It tolls for thee.”
That’s why, when the third runner dropped the baton, we held our breath. How he responded would affect the outcome for our team – and our school.
When someone fails or drops the baton, we all suffer. When someone passes a test with integrity and courage, we all benefit. History and current events remind us of that again and again.
The greatest passing of the baton occurs in the lessons of life. I am convinced that it is not just ability or family lines that cause one to be successful. Commitment to run the race — and to run it well — is what enables the smooth, seamless passing of the baton from parent to child, employer to employee, pastor to parishioner, and teacher to student. In the stands of life are people who cheer and people who jeer.
Passing the baton begins at birth — when we begin teaching and training our children. Our kids wait anxiously to be on their own, carrying their own baton. Our success in passing the baton comes in showing them how to run — and in exhibiting the kind of qualities we want them to embody.
Our success also comes in practice. The runners on the track weren’t running for the first time that day. They’d practiced. Not only had they practiced running; they’d practiced passing the baton. On the day of the race, they knew what to do because they had rehearsed.
In this season, we celebrated graduations, Father’s Day, Children’s Day, and weddings. What we’re really celebrating is the passing of the baton.
My husband has often told our children that his goal in life as a parent is not to leave them with financial gain. Rather, he wants to leave them with three things: a personal faith in God, a strong work ethic, and a sense of responsibility.
“With these three,” he tells our kids, “you can survive anything in the world. Without these, financial or “top of the ladder” success won’t matter when you’ve come to the end of life’s race.”
So carry your baton. Carry it well. Then pass it on. Passing it on doesn’t mean you’re done yet! Cheer from the stands. Remember that the worth of a person is more important than what many would consider accomplishments. Then be there to embrace the runners at the finish line!
This article was originally published in a community interest newsmagazine in 2000. It was re-printed in 2007 in the book Southside Glimmers.