Lessons Learned With a Larger Pair of Gloves

They belonged to Alex. I mean the driving gloves. They were being worn by his young son the first time I saw them; the gloves swallowed the boy's arms up to the elbow. But first let me tell you about Alex.

I used to visit him at least twice a month. His cell had no window; the only light came from a naked 40-watt bulb lodged at the center of the high ceiling.

Alex was in his 30s. I don't think the installation of a window or even a visit from his mother would have changed the expression on this inmate's face. He had the look of someone long institutionalized. From age 16, he had been in and out of jail in successive five-year sentences.

You see, Alex simply loved sports cars. Unfortunately, he never had the money to buy one, and he was not wily enough to stay out of the clutches of the police each time he made off with a new "acquisition."

"The last one was a Porsche," he informed me shamelessly on one of my visits. "Great acceleration!"

Drugs and alcohol held no interest for him, and he was a nonsmoker. He was also a high school dropout. The remarkable thing was that he never thought of himself as a thief.

At our second meeting, I had put a Bible in his hands and identified the Eighth Commandment for him in Exodus. Alex had never examined a Bible before and, strange as it may sound, when he read the words "Thou shalt not steal," he didn't seem to make the connection. I decided then not to press the point. I liked Alex. In a sense, he was an innocent man with one big ethical blind spot. Does that sound possible?

It was not till my third visit that I discovered he was a father. He obviously loved his son. "Would you go see Ronnie for me?" he asked. I assured him I would. (Alex had another five months of his sentence to serve.)

One sunny afternoon I put my phone on the answering service and set out. I had an idea. On the back seat of my car I placed a bag that contained a set of 16-ounce boxing gloves. (These were the "pillowy kind" especially made for friendly sparring practice.)

Alex's modest home was on the edge of Toronto's "cabbage town." His wife, Maggie, was surprisingly loyal to her husband; she also doted on Ronnie. And Ronnie? A lively, freckle-faced eight-year-old who took to me the moment I identified myself as his daddy's friend.

Ronnie was innocently impressed with his dad's interest in sports cars. When I got to the subject of cars with Maggie, he suddenly disappeared from the room to return with those driving gloves. They were battered and old - made of brown leather and fanned out protectively at the wrist. The little fellow had the gloves on in a second, and there he was, pantomiming his father at the wheel.

This was the moment, I decided. I reached into my bag and brought out the sparring gloves. My competitive experience some years back in European boxing rings had taught me the surprising educational value of this sport - when conducted with the right motives! All in some contrast to the popular view of boxing.

When Ronnie saw the gloves, his eyes widened in disbelief. "What humongous driving gloves!" he exclaimed.

I smiled and assured his equally astonished mother that what I was about to do was quite harmless.

"Not driving gloves," I informed Ronnie, "but boxing gloves." In no time, his hands were lost in the pair I offered him. "They're for scoring on a target area while escaping being hit."

"Boxing is not street fighting," I said. "Remember Zorro with his sword?" Ronnie nodded vehemently. I explained to my little audience that, like fencing (its sister sport) boxing - as I had practiced it - had nothing to do with hate but everything to do with scoring.

Like fencing, boxing is inseparable from dance in its study of balance, poise, rhythm, precision of footwork, judgment of distance, and timing. Not to mention goodwill!

And then there's boxing as character building, boxing as culture.... But that was another lesson. Right now I had my hands full harnessing Ronnie's enthusiasm and energy in teaching him the first principles: how to jab, how to block a punch, how to parry, how to slip a punch, how to duck, and how to side-step.

We were having such fun. By instructing my little friend in "the noble art of self-defense," was it violence I was teaching him - or was it love? Perhaps his smiling mother was in the best position to answer that question.

Ronnie received about a dozen lessons before Alex was released from prison. I left my old set of sparring gloves with the boy as a gift - on the condition that he teach his dad to box as soon as he came back home!

Ronnie kept his promise. Alex was astonished and delighted by his son's new skill. The driving gloves were forgotten. I never heard again of Alex being arrested for stealing, and I like to think that his interest has genuinely shifted from swapping cars to "swapping leather."

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