Muhammad Ali called himself the “Greatest of All Time,” and then backed it up with words and actions. At 21, he was the youngest boxer ever to become heavyweight champion, and he won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympic Games. He also had dyslexia.
I had the chance to meet Ali when I was the principal of a public charter school in Nevada.
Early one morning, Ali surprised us all by showing up at the door to tour the school. The school had many famous visitors, because it was founded by another great athlete, tennis player Andre Agassi. But Ali’s presence was something else. We were all starstruck.
By this time in his life, Ali couldn’t speak much. He valiantly struggled with Parkinson’s disease during the latter half of his life. The illness dampened his voice, but not his spirit.
Instead of talking, Ali performed little magic tricks, like pulling a handkerchief out of a famously fake beige thumb. He also hugged and posed with anyone who wanted a picture with him. (Above you’ll see a photo of me playfully pretending to punch Ali in the nose.)
Ali’s visit happened at a crucial time in my life. My daughter had been recently diagnosed with dyslexia, and my wife and I were feeling down as parents.
I knew Ali had struggled with learning to read as a child. He graduated at the bottom of his high school class — 376th out of 392 students. Yet he went on to become arguably one of the most famous people of all time, and he was known for his eloquence.
Seeing Ali in person reminded me of what’s possible despite challenges. Over the next few years, as we faced the challenges of our daughter’s dyslexia, thinking back on Ali helped me get through. Here are five of Ali’s quotes that inspire me during the toughest of times.
1. “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
Students who struggle in school may doubt whether they’re smart or capable enough compared to other kids. I saw my daughter go through this firsthand. Even though she’s now in college, she still sometimes feels self-doubt. As a parent, I also doubted myself many times.
Ali’s philosophy of “fake it until you make it” helped give him the self-confidence to transcend his struggles in school and have a huge impact on the world. His life reminds us how important it is to believe in yourself, even when no one else does. When my daughter and I are down, we use positive self-talk to give us the strength to go on.
2. “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ ”
Ali was known for his grueling training regimen. He worked out six days a week. He woke at 5:30 a.m., ran in army boots, and hit the gym for hours.
I’m no professional boxer, but parenting is hard work. I was tempted to do less at times. But I kept reminding myself that the hard work supporting our daughter would pay off, and in the end, it did. Seeing my daughter succeed and graduate from high school is what made it all worth it.
3. “Often it isn’t the mountain that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
My daughter faced many challenges during a typical school day. And my wife and I were right there with her. Sometimes we were overwhelmed by the big questions — Will she learn to read? Would she go to college?
What we found, however, is that sometimes the most difficult things — and what matters most — are the little things in life. Turning in that one homework assignment. Checking off that last item on a checklist. It’s about taking it one day at a time.
4. “I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And throw thunder in jail.”
This quote obviously isn’t meant to be taken literally, but it contains a lot of truth. Throughout his life, Ali put himself in uncomfortable situations to do what he believed was right. He fought for equality for African Americans, and he protested the Vietnam War.
Like any parent of a child with dyslexia, I also had to “wrestle with alligators.” I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I had to be OK with asking and even demanding that the school meet my daughter’s needs. I had to get accustomed to the uncertainty of my daughter’s future.
5. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Ali was all about service to others. That’s why he visited my school more than 10 years ago. Even when weakened by Parkinson’s, he always believed his presence could help inspire others.
I’ve always felt it was important to think about how I can help other families of kids with learning and thinking differences. Helping others wasn’t just good for them. It was good for my family. My wife and I joined the Parent Education Network (one of Understood’s founding partners), and we connected with so many other parents. It can feel lonely if you don’t think others understand you. Sharing knowledge and experiences with other parents can change that.
Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. When I heard the news, I thought back to his visit to my school so many years ago.
I remembered how as he was leaving, he paused to sign a poster of his famous fight with Sonny Liston. With a pen shaking in his hand, he signed the firmest and most beautifully clear signature you could ever imagine from a man whose very body was struggling against him. Above his signature, he wrote: “I am still the greatest, no matter my challenges.”
Looking for more inspiration? Explore these quotes from famous people about learning from challenges.
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About the author
About the author
Brian Thomas, MS is assistant head of school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS).