You might not think of Muhammad Ali as someone who needed anyone to believe in him, but that’s because you only saw him later in life. You saw the cocky boxer, the brilliant self-promoter, the master of his craft, the fearless warrior.
But at one point, he was a scared child, like every other kid. He was a young black boy named Cassius Clay in a segregated America, who struggled in school and wasn’t sure where life would take him. Luckily, he had someone who did believe in him, a school principal named Atwood Wilson. While other teachers and administrators had trouble knowing what to do with this rowdy kid, Wilson decided he was going to be a fan—a fan like Jim Valvano’s father was a fan of his son.
“Here he is, ladies and gentlemen!” the principal would shout when he saw him, “Cassius Clay! The next heavyweight champion of the world. This guy is going to make a million dollars!” Can you imagine the effect that would have on a kid who knew little of hope or help or opportunity?
When some teachers wanted to fail Cassius, whose priorities were athletics, not academics, Wilson intervened and gave a speech that few ever forgot. “Do you think I am going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn’t finish?” he told them. “He’s not going to fail in my school. I’m going to say, ‘I taught him!’” Can you imagine the confidence this might instill? No wonder he was so determined and bold later in life.
Every kid needs this. Somebody who believes in them. Somebody who fights for them. Somebody who sees not only what most people can’t see about them, but what they can’t even see about themselves. It’s wonderful that Atwood Wilson stepped up. It’s wonderful that people have stepped up like that in your life—maybe it was an English teacher, or a neighbor, or a grandparent.
But you know whose job it is with your kids? Who has to be that first, loudest, most resolute cheerleader for them? You. Cassius Clay wasn’t going to fail in a school run by Atwood Wilson, and your kid isn’t going to fail in a home run by you.