Lessons Learned, Let’s All Be A Little More Kind
- February 19, 2017
- Theresa Bertuzzi
For many years I coached competitive synchronized swimming. It was some of the best years of my life and I enjoyed it so much. It taught me a lot about how to motivate others to succeed and I loved my years of being part of the team but one year we lost one of our swimmers in a car accident and it is that moment that forever changed my view of the world and what is truly important. Oprah always talks about life changing moments that completely change your path or your viewpoint and losing Katie was one of those moments for me.
That year I was coaching some duet routines as well as a team of girls who were all about 10 years old. They were such a sweet group of girls and I had a ton of fun with them. I coached these girls for a good part of the year and then had to have another coach step in for the end of the season because I was pregnant with my oldest son and my doctor wanted me to back off a little bit as my schedule with teaching and coaching was pretty heavy. The season went really well and the girls did great at provincials. Then that summer I got a call that forever changed the way that I would view coaching, teaching, work and the way I would approach anyone in life. My phone rang one afternoon and I got a call from my friend who said she had bad news. She told me that there had been a car accident and one of the swimmers from my ten year old team had died in the crash along with her father. I just sat right down on the floor where I was. That beautiful little girl was gone. I immediately asked who was in the car and if the rest of the family was okay. She told me that the family had been driving out East for a family vacation when the accident had happened. Katie had been killed instantly and her dad had died later in the hospital. Katie’s mom and brother had survived the crash. I was in complete shock. The next few days were a horrible nightmare. I can remember heading to the Disney store to pick up a Tigger stuffed animal for the funeral and the cashier asked me if it was for my baby since I was visibly pregnant. I just said it was because I didn’t think it would be a good idea to explain that I was buying it for a funeral for a sweet ten year old, little girl. Our team’s routine that year was a Tigger theme and the girls wore swim suits that made them look like Tigger so I was picking up a stuffed one so that our swim club could add it into a wreath that one of the amazing moms were making for Katie’s mom. I was also not looking forward to going to that wake. My whole team of little girls would be there, in fact pretty much the whole club was there and it ended up being very comforting being all together. I was so worried about the little girls who were friends with Katie and on her team with her and I thought that this would be traumatizing for them but they did really well. The family had decided to keep Katie’s coffin closed knowing that the little girls would be there which was a huge help but her father’s coffin was open so some of us coaches kind of positioned ourselves to block him while the girls came through to say good bye to Katie and to give her family and mom hugs. They all did really well although the coaches and older swimmers were a mess. I suppose we were all just old enough to fully understand the magnitude of this loss and the sea of little girls that flooded through all dressed in their club uniforms was heart breaking.
When it was my turn to head through the receiving line my heart just broke for Katie’s brother. He was sitting in a chair with a broken arm and he had lost everything. His only sibling was gone and so was his dad and he had been there to witness it all. I just wanted to sweep him up in my arms and take it all away but there wasn’t anything I could do to make this better for him. Then I gave Katie’s mom a hug and she told me words that I will never ever forget. She told me that right after they crashed she could see Katie’s leg was broken and she said that in her confusion she could only think about how this was going to mean that Katie would not be able to swim this year. She then grabbed me and told me to appreciate every second I had with this baby that I was carrying because she would give anything to have Katie’s dirty footprints tracked through the house again. All those moments of irritation as a parent, that we all feel were suddenly treasured moments for her that she would gladly have lived through again and again just to get one more moment with her little girl. Her words that day completely changed my life. When I get irritated with the people I love or frustrated with my children I have that gift that Katie’s mom gave me because I just think of her and Katie at the pool together and I am able to stop, breath and learn to appreciate even these annoying little moments and be grateful that I am even able to have them. I have treasured every single moment of my children’s lives. People always tell you to appreciate every second you have with your children and I can honestly say, that for the most part, I have done that. I laughed with my children harder than many and loved them so fiercely that I am sure it has driven them crazy but I appreciated and enjoyed every second of their childhoods because of that one moment.
Losing Katie also taught me some lessons about myself that I am not necessarily proud of. Following the funeral I had many thoughts of Katie and I remembered her adorable smile and funny personality. She was a good swimmer but like any other ten year old she didn’t really appreciate being pushed to try harder than she had to. The thing with Katie was that very little would get her down and she was always telling jokes, and laughed louder than anyone else on the team. She was the one with the biggest personality in the group and stood out of the crowd because she was so joyful. I not only remembered her happy nature but one moment stuck with me and will remain with me till the end of my days. We were getting ready for a competition and Katie was goofing around like she sometimes did. I normally would have just laughed at her antics but we were getting ready for a competition and I was really pushing the kids hard while practicing their figures. I remember after having the girls repeat a figure they were working on again and again, Katie was exhausted and started to cry. I told her she was “ok” and kept working with her. She calmed down and kept going with determination but I look back at this moment with horror now. How dare I cause even one moment of unhappiness in this little girls life just to win a team sport. At the time winning that medal for our club seemed so important to me and I really pushed those girls to succeed. If I could do it all again I would have pulled that kid out of the water and held her in my arms and told her that it didn’t matter if she came in last place as long as she kept everyone smiling with that amazing personality of hers. I hated myself for ever being the cause of stress in that child’s life. This moment forever changed me. I vowed then and there that I would never intentionally cause harm to another human being and I would always live my life trying to be kind to others. I stopped coaching a few years later. Honestly, my heart was never really into it again because I just could not bring myself to push those kids to the point where they would win. I would second guess myself on every move I made. At first it really wrecked me and how I viewed myself but soon I learned to accept it as a lesson I needed to learn in life and I applied it to every area of my life.
When I was teaching it was always in the back of my mind and I was always careful to make sure that my students knew how much I cared for them and if they had melt downs I would take each of them into my arms and make sure that they knew that it was ok to not be successful at everything. I also made sure that I always shared with them my own failures so that they could see that I was far from perfect too and that was ok. I was always able to keep my temper with them as anytime I felt overwhelmed or irritated I would simply think to myself “what if one of these little faces were gone tomorrow?” and suddenly whatever they were doing would seem so insignificant compared to the love that I had for each and every one of them. They were all my babies and I truly loved each and every one of them. I also appreciated how precious all of these children are to their parents and I protected them like they were my own. This is also how I feel about all of the Tiny Hoppers’ children at all of our daycare centres. Tiny Hoppers has some of the strictest policies and procedures and rules in the city because we are so concerned for the safety of those children and because if anything ever happened to a child at Tiny Hoppers we would never be able to live with ourselves. Brigida and I always train our staff, directors and owners to always remember that the little ones that they are taking care of are the parents whole world and that they need to treat them as if they were their very own children and they do.
I also apply this lesson to the way I handle my company and my staff. I am a terrible manager because I just am completely incapable of telling anyone off if they are doing a bad job. I just don’t have it in me anymore. If I do have to tell someone to smarten up it will leave me cringing and mad at myself for weeks. I literally will not sleep. I have a firm belief that people will work better for you if you are kind to them and I train our franchisees to always approach their staff positively as my theory is that if they are not doing something right then teach them how to do it right. I don’t feel like reprimanding people or pointing out their faults is in anyway productive and have always tried to deal with any situation by seeing it from the other person’s point of view. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes does help when dealing with frustrating situations. At Tiny Hoppers we had a time where we lost a ton of teachers to the school board as there was no way we could match the pay that they were paying. Losing our amazing teachers was not only frustrating for me but was also sad because I adored my staff and I would really miss them. It was also frustrating because right away our clients thought that something was wrong with our company as our turnover in teachers was suddenly higher even though this was happening at all daycares across the city. I could have gotten frustrated with them all for leaving us but truthfully if I was in their position I would have made the exact same choice. They had to do what was best for themselves and their families so I wished them well and let them know how much I would miss them. I also wrote many letters of recommendation and fielded tons of calls from the school board asking for references and I gave them all glowing reports and I really do wish them all well even though I wish they all would have stayed. I could have showed them I was disappointed that they left or expressed my hurt feelings but what good would that have done, they still would have left and then they would have left with unhappy memories of their time at Tiny Hoppers too. Also, what would have given me the right to do so? they needed to do what was best for themselves and their families so good for them.
Does that mean that I don’t lose it sometimes? Nope, I may only blow my temper once in a blue moon but when I do man you better run out of the room. Normally I only blow my temper once someone has been unkind to someone else or if I am so stressed out so that I just don’t know what the heck I am doing but man does my conscious pay for it afterwards and I can remember every single time that I have lost my temper and I regret every single one of them. There was one time that I was so mad at an employee who I believed was very unkind to another employee and I was so worked up that my director at the time, one of my best friends Melanie, actually pushed me into a chair and sat on me. LOL She was like “nope, you are not leaving this office because you are going to fire this person and I don’t have anyone to replace them.” She had me hysterically laughing within seconds and probably saved me from feeling terrible about myself for weeks so for that moment I am really grateful. So I admit I am far from perfect at this whole kindness first approach but losing Katie has changed my attitude in so many areas in my life and has allowed me to see what is truly important so that I am able to put my problems and feelings into better perspective. There are many situations that I have been able to put myself into another person’s shoes and turn off my own hurt and personal feelings so that I could treat that person with kindness instead of responding with my original self-centred feelings. In the end we are all here for a short time and if we could all treat each other like this is our last day together then maybe this world would be a better place. I am so grateful to Katie and her mom for that life changing moment even though I am not at all proud of my behaviour. After that summer I saw a video of our team’s final swim and the video ended with the girls waving and right in the middle of the group was our Katie with a big smile on her face waving away. Good bye sweet Katie, I will always love you and know that I carry you with me and the lessons you taught me. Hang on to those you love and appreciate every moment that you have with them. XOX