A student of ours once unwittingly knelt down onto a cactus. It was a cholla cactus, one of the nastiest in New Mexico, because its inch-long needles have barbs at the end, like a fishing hook. It hurts going in, but it’s even worse coming out. We occasionally have to deal with one or two needles, but this particular time the child had landed on a six-inch long section that now clung to his shin like a giant thorny lizard.

As the initial bites of pain rolled into his consciousness, this boy, five years old, began to freeze. He knew what he had gotten himself into. His teeth clenched and he stopped breathing altogether. The pain was real, but the thought of what was to come was almost unbearable.

Joe slowly eased toward the child, calmly repeating “Breathe, breathe.” Meanwhile, Silke, having surmised the situation, called some friends over. “Josh, Tim, help your friend Michael out by telling a funny story,” she said.

Josh and Tim took one look and immediately recognized the severity of the situation. They immediately fell into the most hilarious antics, recounting the best events from the week, waving, shouting, and playing the goof. Michael’s face, clenched in a painful expression, began laughing, then clenching, laughing and clenching. You could hear the struggle in his voice.

Finally, as the stories got the best of him, Joe slowly reached for the cactus. With one quick yank, Michael’s pant leg went taut and the cactus came out. Michael’s face went bright red, then he stood up, doubled over, and finally waved us off. “I’m all right,” he said, fighting back tears, “I’m all right.” Five minutes later, after a quick checkup, he was back playing with his friends.

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