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Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World Excerpt from Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World

by Rafe Esquith

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Out of the Ordinary

We arrived at the Dodgers' headquarters and were told by a friendly but firm security officer to wait until an official had cleared our admittance. Soon, we were met by our tour guide. She was courteous, but it was plain to see she was tired. She had probably led children on tours for many years, and I could tell by her eyes that this was about the last thing she wanted to do on a Friday evening. Don't get me wrong -- the guide was perfectly nice when she introduced herself, but one sensed she had met enough disinterested and hyperactive children to douse any enthusiasm she might have had about leading yet another group of kids through Dodgers history.

And then something wonderful happened. It's the kind of moment I live for. It's why I love being both a parent and a teacher.

Our guide said, "Let's get started," and we entered the Dodgers' command center. She proceeded to march us down a long corridor past several offices, but the kids stopped short when they noticed something in the passageway. Hanging on the wall was a picture of a famous movie star from Hollywood's Golden Age who happened to be an ardent Dodgers fan. It was a wonderful photograph, taken at least forty years ago, showing him sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium, rooting for his team.

"Hey, look!" exclaimed Cesar. "It's Henry Fonda." All of the kids had recognized him, but Cesar, the leader of this particular group, gave voice to the thought they were sharing.

"You know Henry Fonda?" asked the guide, stunned that a fifth grader knew of an actor who had died a quarter of a century ago. Suddenly, her eyes were no longer tired. She was truly surprised and curious.

"Sure," said Cesar. "Henry Fonda . . . star of 12 Angry Men, a great 1957 film by Sidney Lumet. But I liked him even better in The Grapes of Wrath. I think John Ford did a fantastic job putting Steinbeck on film. Did you like The Grapes of Wrath? We saw an incredible production at Ford's Theatre last year."

At this, a couple of heads poked out of the various rooms. Nothing was said, but from that moment on we had a transformed tour guide. She asked challenging questions, and the tour that we were told would last about ten minutes took almost an hour. After the kids expressed their appreciation and left to buy hot dogs before the game began, our happy but mystified guide pulled me aside.

"I don't really know what to say to you," she said haltingly, "but your kids are unlike any other group I have ever taken around. They're so confident but so sweet. They're so beautiful and they glow." She paused, searching for the right adjective.

"They're extraordinary," she said in almost whispered respect. I'm fortunate to hear this a lot, and that's what this book is about. From airport terminals to Shakespeare festivals to hotel lobbies, people stop, stare, and speak up. And the praise goes beyond "What a wonderfully behaved group of children you have." These kids are distinctive, a quality all the more remarkable given that our society often seems bent on preventing anyone from walking to the beat of a different drummer.

But here's the secret. These students weren't born extraordinary -- they became that way. This is the central theme of this book. These wonderful children didn't always glow or know about Henry Fonda. There was a time when fractions were a mystery and Shakespeare a boring dead white man. But they had been exposed to these concepts and ideals by a series of fine teachers, and had them reinforced by parents who understood how important they were to their kids' development.

Children are born with varying levels of talent and intelligence, but possessing natural smarts and skills is no guarantee of success. It takes more than that: it takes work on the part of parents and teachers to cultivate these qualities, to instill in children the drive and character necessary to translate their natural gifts into extraordinary results. There was a time when these children at Dodger Stadium had been only diamonds in the rough, and not the shimmering gems that delighted their guide. Over the years they had been polished by caring and wise adults. And here's the great news: with patient guidance your child can glow as well. It takes great sacrifice, effort, and preparation to make this journey with your kid. It's a hard road, one that many parents and children ultimately find too demanding to pursue. But as Robert Frost taught us, the road less traveled can make all the difference.

In Rome, kind Italians warn visitors that traffic lights are just suggestions. That's what you are about to read: suggestions. I've been teaching for almost thirty years and have watched my own children grow up. And I've come to one realization: there isn't one right way to raise children. There are countless points of view and many of them are valid and interesting. Yet, I have also come to understand why I take children out on a Friday night when I am too tired to do so. I want to help children become special. I know that every day matters. I have come to realize that even one night at a baseball game might be the moment a child decides to be unique. Children are capable of learning astonishing things in the most unexpected places. With our help and patience, the cure for cancer or the next great novel might be sitting next to us at a ball game. And there are steps we can actively take to help children reach the kind of excellence that we dream about for them.

I fear something for all the children I have been blessed to know, and it's not drugs or gangs. I fear that my children will be mediocre, that they won't live up to the tremendous promise that each of them possesses. I don't want my children to be mediocre, because I know they are capable of more. So let the polishing begin.

Play ball.

The above is an excerpt from the book Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World by Rafe Esquith. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Lighting Their Fires Copyright © Rafe Esquith, 2009