Many years ago when I was in elementary school, I was an outstanding student, always coming home with good grades. But in sixth grade, my neighborhood changed with the building of low income housing only a block away. The school’s population also changed. Soon I was the only Jew left in the neighborhood since my parents could not afford to move.
Gradually, I made new friends. I now wanted to be cool, not just smart. Unfortunately, coolness prevailed and I became a mediocre student during junior high school, and stayed mediocre when I attended a high school in a different area of the city even though this school had a large number of very bright students.
Because I came from a low-performing school, teachers always saw me as average and I was invariably placed in classes with students of average ability. Fortunately, my mother and my local rabbi perceived me as a serious and intelligent student, and it was their encouragement that motivated me eventually to shed my cool exterior and focus on academics later in life. Both were present at critical points in my life, encouraging me to spread my wings and fly intellectually. They believed in me and in my potential.
I thought of this as I watched War Horse, a poetic narrative about a boy and the horse that he trained from childhood. Although War Horse is about a horse, metaphorically it is about learning to cope with new situations and having people in your life who believe you are capable of being successful despite the odds.
The story begins in England in 1914. Ted Narracott needs a plough horse to work his farm, but impetuously buys a racing horse, using the little money he has to seal the deal. When the landlord comes to collect his rent for the farm, he cannot pay and is in jeopardy of losing his farm. Albert, his son, offers to train the horse, named Joey, to plow the field and, miraculously, Joey does it. Although born to be a race horse, Albert believes Joey can meet the challenge and, under Albert’s caring and gentle instruction, Joey becomes the plough horse that is needed, saving Albert’s family from poverty. Moreover, when war breaks out, Joey is recruited as a war horse to transport heavy armament. Albert’s belief in Joey’s adaptability and innate strength enable Joey to survive and to endure adversities that cripple other horses.
Switch to the human metaphor. It is a truism that negative experiences often create opportunities; and to paraphrase an author who has written a self-help book, we become stronger at the broken places. What at first is a disappointment may in hindsight be a blessing that enables us to grow and be strong to face a future challenge.
What emerges from War Horse is a valuable message. Setbacks are a part of life, but we can use them to make us stronger if we believe in ourselves and in our potential. Sometimes, a friend helps us through the darkness to return to the light. There is a powerful story in the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva. Akiva, an illiterate 40-year old shepherd, worked for a wealthy man, whose daughter Rachel saw something special in Akiva. She offered to marry him if he began to study holy texts. She believed in him and Akiva became one of the greatest of Talmudic sages.
Sometimes we need a friend to encourage us to fulfill our potential. The friendship of one who believes in you, mentors you, and is there for you at the time of crisis can be transformational. Joey has this in Albert and others who care for him when he is in danger. When people believe in you, you can often do what you thought was impossible.