©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Clinging easily to the topmost branch of the towering evergreen, Eko the eagle surveyed the course. There were four legs to the relay. Participants had to traverse the vast meadow that stretched almost as far as his eye could see, cross the great northern lake, get to the top of this towering evergreen, and end up on the towering cliff overhanging the valley.
Eko had heard about the relay long before his parents had enrolled him in Wilder University, an elite graduate school with advanced curriculum choices and filled with eager students from diverse backgrounds. Eko knew the rules by heart: Students could create their own four-member teams, each team member was responsible for one leg of the relay, and a significant portion of the final grade hinged on the successful completion of the practicum.
But this year was different. The words of the university president, a wise old owl, spoken just yesterday at assembly, resounded in Eko’s ears. "In honor of the University’s 25th anniversary, a special prize—a very special prize—will be awarded to the team that breaks the school’s record for the relay race."
Since that speech the campus had literally hummed with excitement as students reviewed past performances and debated success strategies. Some of them allowed as how the relay was nearly impossible as it was and complained that they were just being set up for disappointment by even the suggestion that the current record could be broken.
Eko was not among that group. He loved a challenge and he loved to excel. Right now there was nothing in the whole wide world he wanted more than to captain a winning team and beat the record. His closest friends were, naturally, eagles, but Eko had cultivated friendships with a large number of other creatures, as well. Now they all put their varied and collective wisdom together, determined to come up with a winning strategy.
"Obviously I excel at flying," Eko said at one point in the conversation. "I might be able to figure out a way to cover one of the other legs, but not in record time."
"Yeah, and record time is the ticket," said Mic the monkey. "I can climb a tree faster than you can count to ten, but the thought of swimming is a complete joke. Even sailing on a piece of bark…" His voice trailed off and he grinned and shuddered all at the same time.
"And I," offered Hoppity the hare, "can cross the meadow in a smoking flash." He paused and his whiskers twisted into a lopsided smile. "Flying, however, isn’t exactly my cup of greens."
Ollie the otter hadn’t yet said anything. But when Mic asked why the otter was shaking with suppressed giggles, Ollie replied, "I was just thinking how swimming is such a piece of cake for me. But climbing a tree. Oh my!" And at the very thought he burst into peals of laughter. And so it went as they brainstormed together.
Now it came to pass, so the story goes, that Eko posted his team the day before the deadline. Almost immediately he was subjected to a great deal of good-natured ribbing. Even some of his closest friends thought he’d taken leave of his senses. The HEMO team consisted of Hoppity, Eko, Mic, and Ollie.
A few students even spoke to the president. "No one’s ever posted a mixed team before," they asserted. "It just won’t work!" Indeed, the other teams usually consisted of best friends. The wise old owl said very little, just listened and smiled.
A total of 60 teams were scheduled to complete; two per day for 30 consecutive days. As luck would have it, Eko’s team pulled the last spot. And when that day arrived, no one but no one in the history of Wilder University had ever seen slicker precision. The HEMOs simply hummed and they made it look so effortless!
Hoppity took the first leg and fairly streaked across the meadow, his form a blur. He handed the baton to Ollie who promptly disappeared into the lake, reappearing moments later far out from shore. Reaching the far side, he otter hardly seemed out of breath as he handed the batonto Mic, who promptly raced for the towering evergreen. Up, up, up he scrambled; sometimes swinging from branch to branch and sometimes heading so sure-footedly up the trunk he made it look like child’s play. The instant that Mic's head poked up through the top foliage, the baton was in Eko’s beak and the eagle was winging his way toward the towering cliff.
Even before he dropped gracefully to the top of the highest granite boulder, Eko could hear the swelling applause from the students far below along the course. Even before the official time was posted, it was patently obvious, that the HEMOs had done it. They’d broken the school record. No, they had shattered it! They had NOT done it by trying to make everyone do the same thing or in the same way. Instead, the mismatched foursome had just redefined the meaning of team by capitalizing on what each member could bring to the table¾their unique skills. Well, to the competition.
The wise old owl nodded in quiet satisfaction. Perhaps next year another group of students would find a way to surpass this record. But for now, he was going to enjoy awarding the prize.