In the stories so far I’ve talked a lot about death and fear and failure, and that makes sense because we spend our lives immersed in those qualities (or at least I have). But other aspects of life drive us just as hard: love, for example. And pride and desire and friendship.
I grew up admiring high school athletes. College was remote, professionals were on television only. But high school athletes were up close, personal, live, exciting. You could see them around town, wearing their letter jackets and driving cars and generally being the coolest people I had ever seen in my life. That’s who I wanted to be. It looked like fun; they were the kings of the town. And unlike most of my dreams, which I was learning were unrealistic, being a high school athlete was achievable.
It’s easy enough to succeed when your goals are set low. At my school you could get pretty far just by showing up for practice every day and remaining academically eligible. So I turned into that high school athlete myself – football, basketball, baseball. I was not the best player on any of the teams, but I was decent. I held my own, I guess you could say. And in those years I saw the hero worship from the other side. The young eyes of a town looking to me and my teammates. We weren’t always heroic. But we were what they had. We were theirs.
During basketball season the varsity coach ran a youth basketball program on Saturday mornings. Every Saturday, some teammates and I would stop by to help out. We demonstrated drills, helped to keep the kids organized, and talked with the kids (and their parents) about the game the night before or the one coming up next Tuesday. After a few practices we held a draft and divided the kids into teams that we would coach.
I lucked out and got the first pick. I chose a second-grader named Poffenberger who could steal the ball off the dribble from any other kid in the league. My friends all wanted him; I picked him first. He would be a holy terror and everyone knew it. My team was looking good already.
In the second round I took a first-grader named Amy, the only girl in the league. I had had to take Poffenberger with the first pick – you don’t turn down a chance like that – but Amy was my favorite. Not just because she was the only girl out of the hundred or so kids who showed up each week, although that was part of it, because I admired her for competing with the boys and I wanted her to do well. And not just because of her skill, although she was pretty good: she had good hands and could catch any kind of pass, and she was one of the few kids who could reliably make layups. But most of all, the primary reason I wanted her on my team, was that she was so excited to be there she was the most fun to coach: she was the first one in every line, the first one to hold the ball when I started talking, and the only one who never interrupted me.
Coaches of young kids will know how important this last one is. A gym full of bouncing basketballs and squeaking shoes is very loud. If you’re trying to shout over them, and the kids are shouting too, you have no chance to be heard. Most of the time I had to give up on the four or five kids who were wandering around and talking to each other and just focus on the six or seven who were actually listening. Amy was always in that group, nodding, taking in everything I said.
One day in the middle of our season I was telling them something basic I don’t remember now—probably that if they picked the ball up with both hands they had to pass or shoot, or that they had to move their feet on defense instead of wrapping up the offensive player in a bear hug. And a kid blurted out his comment:
“You’re a zitso.”
This was from Sussman, the last kid I had chosen. Sussman was a hyperactive kid whom all the coaches dreaded, as did all the teachers and administrators and every other adult in town except his parents, and I wasn’t always sure about them. Nobody could control Sussman except his older brothers, who would tackle him and pound on him when necessary, which was often. But Sussman’s brothers didn’t play sports and hadn’t come to our practice. It was just me.
And of course, this being high school, I had a bright red pimple on my cheek, which had just appeared and was going to be there for a while no matter what I did. A zitso? How many people shared this opinion? My face felt hot.
I should have ignored the comment; I would know how to do that now. Acne was a part of life and nothing to be embarrassed about, and anyway I was talking to a bunch of six-year-olds, so who cared? But high school’s a rough time, with a lot of self-consciousness running through you, along with whatever evil chemical changes cause your face to break out. So I couldn’t ignore the comment or put it into perspective. I could feel myself turning red. I was embarrassed, and I hated this kid all the more for doing it to me.
“A what?” I said.
The night before I’d played in front of a few hundred screaming fans. We had won in overtime, a thrilling game, and an indelible moment for every kid who wanted to be me, just as I had once sat in those stands and wanted to be the guys who preceded me on the court. Those guys were not beautiful either, but they were rugged, and athletic, and charismatic, and above all teenagers: when I was Sussman’s age, I’d never have dreamed of disrespecting them, my heroes, with such a comment.
And now here I was, getting myself out of bed early the morning after this triumph to come and coach these little kids for free. No, I doubted he’d repeat it: he needed me and my approval a lot more than I needed him. I had ninety-nine other kids to worship me or at least show me a little respect. He had one me.
“A what, Sussman? What did you just call me?”
“A zitso!” he said. And he laughed right in my face.
His defiance made me too angry to speak.
With my anger mounting I set up the cones and started a drill. Amy lined up first, of course. Sussman was upset about not being first so he shoved her, because that was the kind of kid he was. She whirled around and got ready to shove him back, then thought better of it. Instead, she looked at me, her coach, her hero, to do something.
“Sussman,” I said sharply. “We don’t push here.”
“I can push her. She’s just a girl.”
Now I was incensed. The zitso comment was not something I could punish him for. But this? This crossed a line. His brothers would have had him on the ground by now.
“She is your teammate,” I said. “Now give me five pushups.”
Sussman shook his head. His mouth was open, as always; his fat tongue hanging out. Even when he wasn’t laughing or insulting people he still looked mean. “No way.”
“Five pushups right now,” I said. “Or you don’t play today.”
He shook his head for a few more seconds, arms crossed across his chest. I waited. Finally he got down on the floor, laid there for a second, put his palms in place, and started trying to do the pushups.
Pushups had occurred to me as the easiest form of mild punishment; our coaches would have us do 25, or 50, without thinking much of it. It was the first time I had ever made any of these kids do pushups, and to be honest I did not know what a struggle it would be for a six-year-old. After one I knew he’d have a hard time making it; after two his arms were shaking.
With any other kid I’d have pulled him up and done something different – made him run a few laps around the court or something. But part of me wanted to see this through. He needed more than a mild punishment. He needed something that would humble him, so he would learn to respect others. Amy couldn’t make him do pushups, but I could on her behalf.
I, the zitso.
It took an impossibly long time. By the time he stood up, his face was bright red. He was breathing hard and there were tears in his eyes.
Now I felt terrible. It had not been my intention to make a little kid cry, not even him. How was I supposed to know that five pushups would be beyond his limits? I looked around, worried that I was going to get in trouble.
And although I told myself that this had nothing to do with the zitso comment, maybe it did. Sure, he’d been mean to Amy, but wasn’t there some part of me that enjoyed the revenge I was able to enact? Wasn’t a little embarrassment fair play? I was practically a kid myself.
But that was untrue and I knew it. I was their coach; I needed to be better than that.
Sussman ran to the back of the line and wouldn’t look at anyone. He was not upset because his arms were sore from doing the pushups. It was because he had had to lie on the floor, face down, and he had to do what I said, and he had to do it in front of everyone else, and he had to show them all how physically weak he was. Even Sussman, the kid who had once spit in the principal’s coffee and stirred it with his finger, was still young enough to be humiliated.
Luckily the game was starting. My teammate, coaching the opposing team, came over to see what was happening.
“Pushups for Sussman,” I said nonchalantly. “He insulted Amy. Had to have him drop down and give me five.”
“Good, that kid needs it. Should have had him do fifty.”
I did not mention the personal insult to me, or my suspicion that fifty pushups would possibly have killed the poor kid.
My teammate ran off: two of his players were climbing the pushed-in bleachers as if it were a rock climbing wall, and he had to chase them down before they fell from the top and broke their skulls. After he got things organized his kids started taking off their shirts and hurling them into the bleachers.
This was how we did things in those days, at al levels. Shirts and skins. The girls used pinneys or coordinated their colors so they knew who was on what team, but we boys never did. One team just stripped to the waist. And because my team had Amy, the only girl, we were shirts. If we’d had two girls in our program I suppose we’d have dug up some pinneys. With only one girl, it didn’t matter. It was assumed we would be shirts, and if anyone forgot, it was quickly remedied.
“We’ll go shirts – oh right,” a coach would say. “You’ve got Amy. We’ll go skins.”
One girl in the program: we were shirts. Always. It was easy. I didn’t think anything of it.
The buzzer went off, causing gasps and squeals of astonishment. This was the first time we’d be using the real scoreboard and the real clock, and it felt like a big deal even to me. To the first and second graders it was as if they had made it to the NBA. Or at least the high school varsity team, which from their perspective was almost the same thing.
Their excitement was adorable; I forgot all about the earlier incidents with Sussman. Instead, I took pride in being the hero coach again. In the huddle I gave them some instructions—make sure you know who you’re guarding, stay between them and the basket, pass the ball to your teammates—and we were all set.
Hands in the middle. A power cheer. Even Sussman participated. His tears were gone now; his face looked different than it ever had. Maybe he wanted to blend in. Maybe I had touched him with the discipline, and from now on he would just play basketball. It seemed unlikely, but who knows how these things happen? Everything I did had a disproportionately large impact on these kids, just as everything the high school kids did had had a disproportionately large impact on me, ten years before.
I could learn to like Sussman, if he calmed down. He was not such a bad kid. He had a lot of energy. But he was young, and there was time for that to be redirected. Maybe I could help make that happen.
The huddle broke and the kids ran to the court and our bench. I was following them when I noticed that Amy had lingered behind.
I smiled at her. “Amy, get out there!” I said. “You’re starting!”
She didn’t smile back. Her forehead was grooved with concern. “Can I ask you something, Coach?”
“Of course,” I said. The buzzer sounded again; I bent over slightly so I could hear her better.
“Are we shirts or skins?”
I smiled at how many times I had to tell these first graders the same thing. Yes, we take a bus when we go to away games. Yes, the Gatorade cooler has Gatorade in it. Yes, I can grab the rim. No, I am not going to do it right now…
“We’re shirts!” I said. “Come on, let’s go. We need your layups and tough defense! Get out there”
She did not run to the court the way I had expected. Now I became concerned. She was my most enthusiastic player, the one most likely to be excited that she was starting. I expected her to get out to the middle and carefully look at her toes to make sure they were not stepping on the circle at the middle of the court, because I had once casually mentioned that toes on the line were a violation. Why wasn’t she running out there as fast as she could? Why was she still frowning? She looked troubled. Anxious. Scared.
She nodded slowly, staring at the court. Nine players were chasing each other around the circle, half of them trying to step on each other’s feet. It was the mix she should be in.
“Amy, is something wrong?” I asked.
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t take her eyes off the court. Five skins. Four shirts. The varsity coach slash referee waiting for her. What was she seeing?
Finally something clicked.
“You know what, Amy?” I said. “We’re always going to be shirts. Okay?”
As soon as I said this she exhaled. Her shoulders relaxed and she looked up at me, her eyes big and bright.
“Oh good,” she said. “I figured it was just a matter of time.”
And she skipped off to join her teammates, who had finally calmed down enough to begin the chaos that sort of resembled basketball. I straightened up and watched them, wondering at how much there was about first graders that I didn’t know. Like how many pushups they could do. Or what worried them.
And that day as I drifted up and down the sideline, calling out encouragement and shaking my head at how young and terrible they were, I found myself wishing the morning would never end. I felt proud of them – all of them, even Sussman – as if they were my own children. And yet I couldn’t help but think that I could never give them everything they needed. They were under my care, and I could give them time and energy and whatever wisdom I had to impart, but the world was cruel, and my knowledge and ability to help would always be incomplete.
Poor Amy. How many Friday nights had she suffered in silence, terrified about what she might be asked to do the next morning? How long had she carried this burden? Her fear of making a terrible choice between deep, powerful humiliation and defying the coach she loved? Between the game she was beginning to love and the shame she was just now old enough to feel?
In these stories I’ve written a lot about death and fear and failure. And of course there’s love and pride and desire and friendship. All worth writing about. All part of my history.
And then there’s shame. There’s something awful about shame, something destructive and pointless, and yet it has a kind of redeeming quality. I felt it that morning – the shame that lived in myself, and in Sussman, and in Amy, for three different reasons and with three different results.
Shame is ugly and terrible and not something to be wished for, but there are times when it can produce something beautiful. I don’t mean beautiful in a conventional, aesthetic sense. I mean something deeper. Aesthetic beauty is part of the world, belonging to everyone and everything. But shame? Shame is all ours. Beauty is nice. But shame is human.
Ah, Amy! Sussman! Poffenberger! Somewhere there’s a picture of this team, with me towering above those kids, and all of us smiling away. There may be a video too. In it they’re probably running around like water bugs, and I’m probably shaking my head. Now and then a basket will be made, and we’ll treat the phenomenon like a miracle, because it kind of was, every single time it happened.
Those of you interested in the high school side of this can check out the coaches and teachers (music, science, and eighth-grade English) I’ve written about before. You can see my stab at teaching my kids, or at least sitting by while they learn, in #14 – The Bass Guitar.
And as always, you can find links to all the 100 Objects on the main page.
My thanks to my reviewers! Small Press Reviews calls The Race “an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics.” My Little Book Blog calls The Promotion an “easy and sophisticated read.” You can find my books at Amazon.com and elsewhere. Very reasonably priced. A perfect gift for anyone interested in the human side of a political scandal or in recruiting season at a biglaw firm. Let me know if you’d like a free copy—I still have some review copies available and love giving them away!
Image Credit: Basketball Tips and Training