When I was in middle school, I was–well, “pudgy” would be the kindest word for it. I weighed about what I weigh now, but was half a foot shorter. I resembled Jerry O’Connell in Stand By Me. When I went to Space Camp, staffers took a picture of me in the Moon gravity chair. I look like a young Old Elvis, all pasty white and bloated in my blue jumpsuit.
Unsurprisingly, I was not great at sports. The bane of my existence was Physical Education. The PE instructors didn’t help. One coach made us play a version of dodge ball where all of us students ran around the gym’s perimeter while he hurled balls at us. The last person standing won. Given that the coach once knocked a student unconscious, I guess what you won was freedom from a concussion. Later on he was fired for making advances on 12-year-old girls, so he was an all-around good guy.
One day we ran relays. Our whole class was divided into teams. I don’t remember if the coaches running the class did the dividing or if they picked relay leaders who in turn picked their teams, but either way, my team wasn’t happy to have me on it. I was fat. I was slow. I was not going to help our team win.
We were all sixth graders, with the social skills that implied, so my teammates were happy to tell me that I’d better run fast, that I’d better not lose the race for them. Eventually something snapped inside me. I smiled at all of them and, when I was handed the baton, sauntered down the length of the gym and back like a debutante strolling into a ball.
One of the coaches pulled me into his office. “PE may not be a perfect example of how life works, but it’s the best one we’ve got,” he told me. While I was still puzzling out what he meant, he spanked me with his fiberglass paddle.
I’ve thought about this episode a lot while watching Eli play soccer. In games, especially those played in the morning, he loses focus. He’ll run vaguely in the direction of the ball, or stop and hope the ball comes somewhere near him.
On the one hand, I want to tell him to keep his mind on what he’s doing and play as hard as he can. One thing soccer can teach him is the need to follow through on what you say you’re going to do — in this case, playing ball as part of a team. On the other hand, as my checkered athletic career taught me, there’s a big difference between intrinsic and extrinsic pressure. While I’d work as hard as possible if the sport interested me, if it didn’t, I wasn’t going to waste my time. I expect Eli to do the same. On the third hand, he’s four. As long as he’s having fun running around, he’s good. I’m stockpiling worries for the future, I suppose.
But if he ever gets punished for walking in a relay race, I’m going to smile and tell him a story.