I watched Mick talking with Stuart’s parents in hushed tones. He probably was explaining that we couldn’t help Stuart here. But then I saw them walking toward me, and I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach and settle there. Mick was introducing me, but I was only catching a word here or there. “…is studying to be a teacher…starts all the beginners…trust her with my own kids.” Then I was weakly shaking hands with them and leading them back to the barn to meet O’ Henry, a faithful friend who had helped me start many “up-downers” to post to the trot and learn how to canter. As I reached for the saddle and bridle, I noticed that my hands had begun to sweat. This wasn’t going to be easy; as a matter of fact, it was going to be downright painful.
That was several months ago, and Stuart was still coming every week for his hour-long (that felt like a century-long) riding lesson with O’ Henry and me. I had learned that he had had brain-damage at birth and his doctors thought riding would be good for his coordination and for his spirits. But I was frustrated. Stuart was still trying to get his balance and learn how to post to the trot instead of bouncing all over the saddle. Every Saturday morning was a repeat of the last one.
I was standing in the center of the ring with my faithful pony, O’Henry (named for the short story writer). The pony’s eyelids were slowly closing and his lower lip was starting to hang. He was as bored as I was! Stuart was standing up in his stirrups with his arms stretched out like airplane wings. The minutes stretched out before me like the night before Christmas. Now it was time for an exercise we called “Around the World.” Its aim was to improve your balance and confidence. You had to kick both feet free of the stirrups, drop the reins, and swing your right leg over the pony’s neck so you were sitting on the saddle facing one side. Then you swung your left leg over the pony’s rump so you were facing the back. Next, you swung your right leg again until your were facing the pony’s other side. Finally, you would swing your left leg once more to face the front of the pony – hence, “Around the World.”
Most kids could do it in less than a minute. It took Stuart a small eternity. He could hardly curl a leg over the pony’s neck to begin the exercise. Each time, he almost slid off the saddle onto the ground. This time was different. When he finished, he sat up tall and said, “Boy oh boy…’round the world in eighty days!” And then he flashed a smile. I almost lost it. I gulped and blinked back tears of disbelief. Had Stuart just made a joke? Was he telling me that he knew how long it took him to do this exercise, too? What was wrong with me, that I had missed this charm – this sweet, sensitive boy who trusted in O’ Henry and trusted me? And I had dreaded each appointed time. I felt a flush of red rising somewhere on my neck and setting fire to my face. I had called myself “Teacher.” I didn’t deserve the title.
I don’t think Stuart ever knew what effect he had had on me that day. He rode with me for six more years, eventually learning how to post, how to canter, and even how to jump small fences. One day he stopped coming. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because he had graduated from high school and had other roads to travel. I hope that I gave him something – good memories, a feeling of accomplishment. I only wish I could tell him what he gave to me. Maybe I can just tell you: Stuart, you helped me become a real teacher. Thank you!