Survival Skills
by Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate

Here is the virtue
in not looking up:
you will be the one
who finds the overhang
out of the sun
and something for a cup.
You will rethink meat;
you will know you have
to eat and will eat.
Despair and hope you keep
remote. You will not
think much about the boat
that sank or other boats.
When you can, you sleep.
You can go on nearly forever.
If you ever are delivered
you are not delivered.
You know now, you were
always a survivor.

Photo: Jose Nava Montez and Coach Jeff Thompson

I’ve always considered wrestling a spirit-quest kind of sport. It has a deeply personal, introspective, and transcendental quality. It can, in its raw form, teach us something about our character and will. Stripped of all the trappings, it’s you against your opponent—strength, speed, technique, stamina, intelligence, tenacity, and perseverance. In many ways, wrestling can be a parallel for the struggles we face in life. It is the instinctual response, in the moment, to the challenges or opportunities we face, relying on our experience, knowledge, skills and habits, which set us up for success in the long run. To survive and thrive, on the mat, and in life, these are prerequisites. It’s why Ryan’s poem speaks to me: If you ever are delivered you are not delivered. For the wrestler, there’s always another opponent, another workout, another few pounds to cut to make weight. I think the same can be said for each of us metaphorically—personally and professionally. Great strength and empowerment come from that knowledge. And sometimes, the magic touch of a “shaman” can help us find our way.

I’d like to share a coming-of-age, spirit-quest kind of story about Jose Nava Montez, a junior at Skyview High School. Jose was born in the United States. His mother returned to Mexico when he was in 6th grade. At that time, his older sister became his legal guardian. Angry and bitter about the loss of his mother, Jose made poor choices. He started to hang out with known gang members, “banging” the streets late into the night. By 8th grade, after getting “jumped into” the gang, it had become his surrogate family. Jose attended four middle schools in three years, getting kicked out of two. By 9th grade, it was clear that unless Jose made a course correction, he would end up incarcerated like his older brother.

Enter shaman Jeff Thompson, Skyview’s tough-love wrestling coach. Jose started wrestling his sophomore year. Coach Thompson told him he had to get his house in order to wrestle, including leaving the gang. Wrestling gave Jose the confidence and strength to do so. One summer morning, he got up and bought a bus ticket to Longview so he could get “jumped out” of his gang. Getting jumped out requires taking a beating from the gang for a timed minute. If you ask Jose now about the incident, he’ll tell you that ten seconds in a wrestling match is much harder. “Once you do wrestling, everything else is easier,” he says. Sounds like the strength of a survivor.

Shamans are said to treat ailments and illness by mending the soul and restoring the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. And what of Jose’s spirit-quest?

Check out what Jose has to say about Coach Thompson’s influence on his life:

“Coach Thompson is an awesome guy. He really helps me out with anything I need for wrestling—shoes, clothes, summer camp. When you lose, I’m not going to lie, you want to stop, but Thompson keeps me going. He says, just work harder. If Thompson says run five miles, I will. He gives me the strength to win. In wrestling he’s my father figure. If I don’t succeed, he will help me succeed. He never gives up on me.”

Jose has made quite a name for himself in the wrestling community and has been ranked in his weight class at state for the last two years. After wrestling for only three months, he went to state as an alternate to compete. Coach Thompson’s response: “That’s unheard of.”

And what has Jose learned from his experience on the streets and on the mat? He’s got the spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical stamina to survive and thrive in any endeavor. Jose is on track to graduate. He currently has a 3.4 GPA and a cumulative GPA of 2.67 (mostly because of choices made while a freshman). Jose continues to use Tutorial, a targeted intervention program, to keep his grades up. Jose now talks about college with his “adoptive” family. His “brother” goes to Mountain View, and they hope to attend college together. Jose’s proud that he’s earned college credits through his Skyview technology classes. Both his adoptive family and his birth mother are proud of Jose’s accomplishments. And so am I.

I suspect “Shaman” Thompson is too.

Thanks again for all that you do.

Take care,

Image: Steve's signature