The Chinese Bamboo Tree and the Culver Military Academy

This evening I was reminded by Les Brown (video here) of both the Chinese Bamboo Tree and an experience I had at the Culver Military Academy (

The Chinese Bamboo Tree starts its growth after not one, not two, but five YEARS of nurturing and tender care.  In those first four years, where you are caring, possibly daily, for that bamboo tree there is nothing to show for your work.  No immediate result, no evidence of growth, not even a shoot coming out of the ground.  Imagine this for a second, as Les Brown does in this video above.  You go out, weed the area where you’ve planted the seed, fertilize it, care for it, water it.  And NOTHING happens for four years.  What is the likelihood that anyone, in today’s age, will persist? That fifth year, however, everything changes.  The bamboo tree comes flying out of the ground and grows 80 feet in a matter of weeks.  The question is: Did the bamboo grow 80 feet in five weeks or 80 feet in five years?

This story reminded me of a cadet at the Culver Military Academy.  Smith (name changed for anonymity) was 14 years old when I first met him.  He was a first year cadet, a member of the Troop at Culver.  (The horses the Troop rides, incidentally, ride in every presidential inauguration).  What was different about Smith was that he wouldn’t meet your eye when you spoke to him and avoided all situations where you did speak to him.  He was, however, exceedingly polite and he would, of course, do what was necessary of him according to the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures).  A greeting thus would be responded to by ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’, of maybe, on a good night ‘good evening sir’.  I was working in the arena during the evenings when when Smith would come by, my normal hockey duties with elite players over for the day.  Smith would be there on his evening leave, almost nightly, with a group of other socially excluded misfits from the Troop, learning to skate.  I would sometimes let them play hockey when there was no one else around.

I wondered, to myself, what had happened to Smith to so obviously break his confidence.  He was evidently talented – if you paused to watch carefully you could see intellect, humour, and a glimmer of ambition hidden beneath a cloak of non-confidence.  But his desire to remain hidden, to not attract attention, made it easiest to miss him or, more likely, to just give up on him.  I was tempted to stop with the greetings as his his desire to not speak to adults was so obvious and he made the effort so difficult with no result.  But I made it my mission, every time I crossed paths with him, to say hello, despite his non-response.  Daily, for over a year, I received no response except that which was regulated as I was a superior officer in the military structure.

After about a year of this routine I was walking from the Officer’s Mess up to the Arena.  Smith burst out of a building on that walk and, before he caught himself, ran over and was telling me all about a test he had just, finally, passed.  After a few moments of excitement he caught himself, realizing that he had just shared some of his personality, some of his passion, and some of who he was with an adult. As it turns out, after getting to know him, that was the first time he had shared with any adult in years.  I also learned from him over the coming months that there was good reason for the wall he had built around himself – but, just like the Chinese Bamboo, it took years for him to build a foundation of trust where he could suddenly rise above it. And rise above he did… his list of accomplishments cannot be shared because they are so elite that his anonymity would be compromised in these days of Google search. But on that day, as he suddenly realized that he had just trusted someone else with his personality and dreams, he stopped himself and grew flush red.

“Congratulations, Smith,” I said. “… and thank you”.

“No sir… thank you.”  And, with that and the hint of a smile, he hustled off to prepare for dinner formation.

Post script: Smith continues to write to me today, saying in his first letter that “I remember you said it would be nice if someday you knew what your students were doing”.  I can share that he is now a tactical medical doctor at the highest levels of elite military service after years of competing at the world’s highest athletic stages.