Life Lessons from a Smelly Shoe

A few years ago, my wife and I traveled with some friends to take our children to a youth camp.  We enjoyed watching all the young people playing games, working on projects, and participating in drama and music.  One evening, hundreds of people gathered into the gymnasium, watching as the teenagers were separated into two teams.  Each participant had removed his or her left shoe placing it in a giant pile on the left side of the court and then placed the right shoe in another pile at the other end of the gym.  The groups formed two relay lines under the same basketball goal, preparing to compete.  Once the whistle blew, each team sent the first person in line running to pile A, the goal being to dig through the pile to find his or her shoe, put it on, and then proceed to pile B, to locate the other shoe.  Finally, they would run back and tag the next person in line creating the relay cycle. 

People were falling out of their seats laughing at the comical activity, and things were moving along nicely, until Josh’s turn.  Josh was mentally handicapped and had some severe motor skill challenges.  He managed to find his left boot, and then he sat down Indian style in the middle of the floor trying to get the leather to wrap around his foot. The kids on his team were starting to get really nervous.  Their shouts were no longer encouraging, but started to become more aggressive as he slowly unlaced his boot and struggled to put it on his foot. This was going to put them behind at least ten minutes.  One-by-one the other team’s contestants raced by, creating a significant lead. 

One girl dared to challenge the crowd and took a risk walking down to the lines to speak with the referee to see if they could help with the situation.  The referee immediately held his hands out, bringing both lines to a standstill.  The deafening volume of the room changed to silence, and within a few moments every eye in the building focused on Josh.  Then, one after another, kids in both lines began to cheer him on, and encourage him as he finished tying his left shoe.  Now he stumbled by himself to the next pile; the cheers became even louder as cries of “Come on Josh!” and “You can do it!” were sounding off through the arena.  Josh, oblivious that he was the sole contestant, excitedly dug into the shoes, raising his boot to the sky in victory as his audience watched him once again sit down Indian style wrestling it into submission.  Tying a less than perfect knot, he began hobbling back to his team to tag the next person in line.  The emotion in the room was overpowering as the entire place stood in a standing ovation for Josh.  The roar of clapping and shouts of “Bravo” were touching; some had tears running down their cheeks, impressed with his accomplishment.  Josh stood there with a big grin, and his face beamed with pride, still unaware of why he was the star attraction. 

As the evening ended, I drove away and realized that something important had happened for me that night.  Part of my faith in mankind had been restored.  A lone girl saw an inequity and did the right thing by trying to help another person.  She made a difference that night. 


Original short story and photo by Paul Farmer