Well, there are just so many places to go with this, aren’t there?
- Yes, I was once upon a time on a track team. One season, in the seventh grade. I was trying to find the thing I was good at. (Spoiler: It wasn’t track.)
- Is it possible I used to be an even pastier hue that I currently am? Maybe it’s just the lighting.
- Speaking of lighting … squint much?
- And while we’re in that general area, the glasses. Saints preserve us. I remember those glasses. They had a horrifying curlicue on the temples. There’s no accounting for taste, especially when you’re twelve. I’m pretty sure they appear to great effect in another photograph, but I am absolutely sure I’m not emotionally ready for anyone to see that particular picture at this time.
- Could I look less comfortable?
- I think it’s possible that there’s a banana clip on the back of my head. The eighties. It was a difficult decade for hair.
I don’t remember a lot about that season except being terminally discouraged at every practice. Meets were worse. The coaches did not know what to do with me, and I did not know what to do with myself. I was awkward and miserable and as out of place as a polar bear in Ethiopia. I still don’t know why I stuck it out for the entire season, except possibly that I had to prove something to my mother, who didn’t really want me to be in any sport ever. (Seeing the schedule some people maintain to get their offspring to all their practices and games and meetings has given me more sympathy for her position in recent years.) Unfortunately, I think the only thing I proved to either one of us was that I was stubborn as sin, which was not exactly news.
The one bright spot that still shines in my memory is Bobby, a guy who went to the same church I did. He was an upperclassman at the high school, a standout athlete, and movie-poster handsome. The middle school and high school teams practiced at the same time on our town’s lone cinder track, and he knew my name and used it, nevermind I was a weird, dorky kid. He was nice to me every single day, while also not pretending I was going to be track star, which was frankly a relief. I could see the toll it took on people to be falsely encouraging. (“We’re going to find your event, Carol!” the one coach kept saying. “What do you think about trying hurdles?” I thought she was crazy was what I thought, but I gave it the old college try anyway and picked cinders out of my knees and palms for a few weeks.)
I hear a lot about sports teaching life lessons and I don’t disagree, although I don’t think what I learned in seventh grade track is what people are usually thinking of. I believe the lesson, as I sit here in my forties and remember someone who just said hello to me every day when I was twelve and hated the way I looked and the way I felt and the way I was in the world, is a very simple one.
A little kindness goes a long, long way.