No. Ten More Times.

My attention, like that of most of the world, has been focused on Ukraine lately. I’ve been spending hours keeping up with the news, and trying to do what little I can to support the brave Ukrainian people. I will leave saying anything important about the situation to the experts, but I would like to share one personal connection to Ukraine, a memory which recent events have brought to the forefront of my mind.

Years ago (I believe it was 2003 or 2004) I was working as an English teacher for Berlitz in Beverly Hills. Among the many interesting students who came to that office for English lessons were two brothers from Ukraine, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. They were already internationally famous, but, not being a boxing fan, I had never heard of them. They wanted daily individual lessons for several weeks, and I was assigned to teach the younger brother.

Wladimir’s sheer size was intimidating. When he stood in a doorway he filled it completely, and I remember once borrowing his watch to time an exercise, and needing both hands to hold onto it. He was sweet though, with a fun sense of humor, and we quickly developed an easy rapport.

There was one remarkable thing about Wladimir that thoroughly impressed me at the time, and that I have never forgotten. I have had students who picked up new concepts more quickly, or who had a better ear for pronunciation, but I have never, before or since, had a student who came close to him for sheer determination.

Intensive language learning is physically exhausting, and most people need frequent breaks, but Wladimir rarely wanted to take any. On the contrary, he asked for extra drills. If we had been practicing a particular skill for a long time, and I suggested we move on to something different, thinking he might be getting bored, he would often say something like, “No. Ten more times.” Not one more time, but ten, or even more.

Ever since, when I’m tired and need inspiration to keep working, I have remembered his attitude. I have never been surprised to hear that he won, well, anything. I was not surprised to hear that his brother became mayor of Kyiv. Although I spoke to Vitali only briefly in hallways, he radiated the same force of will.

I have always thought that unfathomable level of dedication was peculiar to the Klitschkos, but in recent days I’ve wondered if it isn’t shared by Ukrainians in general. The more I think about it, though, the more I am coming to believe that it could be something that resides in all of us, a human potential we can access if we dig deep enough. I hope so, because if, as seems possible now, we really are going to take down the complex international network of tyranny and corruption that has Putin as its epicenter, we are going to need it. All of us, around the world, who care about freedom and human rights, are going to need it.

I still have the autographed picture Wladimir gave to me back then. I doubt he remembers me, but I hope he would be pleased to know how much he has inspired me over the years, and that I have learned to say, if not to spell, at least two words of Ukrainian: Slava Ukraini!

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