Sunday, May 21, 2017

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

The first time I wrote for reasons unrelated to a school assignment was during my freshman and sophomore years of college.  The name of this very enlightening opus?  "Life."  (Even just the first word of my maiden literary voyage is nauseatingly embarrassing due to the pompous self-importance.)  The entire story was an autobiography from the perspective of my experiences with soccer.  I thought my writing was super edgy because it contained lots of swears.  The piece was also environmentally conscious because it had a font size of 10, plus it was single spaced and double sided.  The last time I read it was probably ten years ago and I wanted to barf because it was cringeworthy on so many levels.  Thank the lucky stars I was unaware of blog sites at that time.

If "Life" had a thumbnail overview on Goodreads (which would never happen because it was so atrocious,) it would read something like this: in this poignant novella, nineteen year-old Dennis describes the resurrection of his love for soccer when he became a junior high school coach following the devastating agony of being cut as a player from his college team.  The young man reflects upon the contrast between his triumphant high school experience and the abysmal failure of his short-lived collegiate career.  Again, I fully recognize how melodramatic this sounds and I want to hide as if I've just discovered at 5 p.m. that my zipper has been down for an entire work day.

Long story short on the soccer front, I had a high school coach who believed in me more than I believed in myself.  He brought out the best in a good athlete who happened to play soccer.  I was never a skilled or polished player.  But I was so hungry with hustle, it was enough to get me some recognition.

When I went to college, my lack of skill was exposed quickly by the higher quality of players all around me.  And I had a coach who just plain disliked me at first, then ultimately hated me.

Getting cut turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because an opportunity arose to coach a junior high boys team.  The experience operated as a personal renaissance of sorts because it reinvigorated my love for soccer.  Teaching the guys about the game turned out to be really fun and rewarding for me.  And after multiple seasons with the same core group of kids, I became emotionally attached to them.  Soccer was suddenly fun again even though I wasn't playing.

Fast forward 20 years later to Easton.  Greta started playing rec soccer in kindergarten.  I agreed to coach because honestly she wouldn't take the field without me there.  But at the same time, of course I was going to coach.  C'mon man, it's my sport!  Plus, I got to participate in an activity with my big girl while getting to know Greta's peers and their parents better. There was nothing but upside.

A few seasons went by and Greta joined an impromptu indoor team for girls her age this past winter.  I was surprised she was interested enough to play because I thought she was starting to lean more towards dance and gymnastics over soccer.  So when she said she was up for it, I jumped in to coach with two other parents.

As the weeks went on with the indoor season, I became smitten with Greta and her teammates.  Seeing them gibe as a group and improve so significantly from beginning to end was about one million times more satisfying and fulfilling than anything I have done in the last 15 years of my day job.  I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I would actually start pacing with anxious anticipation during the hour before our games.  During car rides, my mind would wander for practice ideas.

This is a strange but explanatory question.  Have you ever given a compliment to a 7 or 8 year-old girl?  They are not yet mysterious and complicated teenage enigmas who demonstrate feelings like professional poker players, so when the positive message of approval is received and resonates in their pony-tailed heads - they beam with personal pride!  Their emotional states are still so transparent, you can almost see the sudden bounce in their step from even something so simple as a heartfelt "Great job!"  I tell my wife over and over again how just one smile from one girl in one practice or game is just, well, everything.  That moment is precisely why I love coaching so much.  If I can make Greta or her teammate feel good about herself for even just a brief moment because she made a nice play of any sort, then we are doing something right together.

At this moment, Greta is at an interesting crossroads for her soccer odyssey.  She has her first tryout next week to determine which travel team she will play on next fall and spring!  (Maybe another time we can lament whether this level of competition and stratification at such an early age is good or bad, but not now.)   It is so pathetic, I know, but I am literally tossing and turning about what is to come.  I signed up to coach whatever team Greta lands on but the coaches are not consulted (and I whole heartedly agree this is the right way to do it) about selecting the third grade teams' players.

Now before you assume I am some kind of a dad like the one Emilio Estevez' character tearfully describes in The Breakfast Club, I don't care whether Greta makes the A team or the Z team.  I honestly do not.  The only thing that bums me out is the very high likelihood that she will not be grouped with all of the same girls who were on her indoor team over the winter.  (The numbers just don't work out due to roster sizes as compared to the total number of kids trying out.)  She has a comfort and familiarity with all of them that brings out the best in her.  And selfishly, I am already connected emotionally to these girls whom I am so excited to see continue with their growth and development.

Honestly, I think I'm going through some kind of emotional trigger because I had such a bitter exit from the game as a player and I never want G to ever experience anything like that in any aspect of sports.  In order to explain it effectively, I have to give you some of the nitty gritty details.  (Hey if you've made it this far, you might as well get the full story.)

In the fall of my freshman year at UVM, I played on the B team for a coach (not the varsity coach) whom I'll call Dick.  In the second to last game of our season, we played Dartmouth.  A varsity player rehabbing from injury played with us, which was part of the B team's purpose.  We were getting absolutely waxed like 5 to nothing or maybe even worse.  The varsity player (who sucked) started reaming us all out when the ship started sinking, basically placing blame on everyone but himself with every goal scored against us.  Dick also joined in and started hammering away at me.  By that point in the season, I was a basket case.  My confidence was shot.  I hated soccer.  I hated Dick.  I hated that my coach didn't see anything good in me.  Something inside me just snapped.  I walked off the field because I couldn't take it anymore.

I sat on the bench.  Dick asked me if I was hurt.  I said no.  He literally never spoke to me again after that moment.  The next game, I didn't play.  The season ended.

In the winter and spring, all of the B-teamers played with varsity as part of a tryout to see if we would be invited to camp that summer.  The varsity coach, Ron, was our only coach for that season.  Dick was gone.  I suddenly had hope again.  I played as hard as I could.  When the spring season ended, we had exit interviews with Ron when he would tell us if we were coming to camp.

During our talk, Ron told me he loved my toughness and hustle.  But my skills were weak.  I wasn't being invited to camp.  He was right.  And I appreciated his honesty.  I was bummed but I was at peace.  We shook hands and I thanked him.  I got up and started to walk out.

But here is the part of my exit interview that still haunts me to this day.  As I was leaving the room, Ron said "And for someone who walked out on his team ..."  I didn't hear anything else that he said after that sentence.  My mind went totally black.  In that moment, I realized that I had been labeled as a quitter.  I had been fighting an uphill battle to change his perception of me the entire winter and spring.  I don't think I ever had a realistic shot at making the team.  And he couldn't have been more wrong about me.  Not one person had ever asked about my side of the story at Dartmouth.  If Ron or Dick had known the real me at all, they would have realized that I would have given absolutely anything to be on that team.

When I coach Greta and her teammates, that final conversation always lingers somewhere in the back of my head and my heart.  I remind myself constantly to keep an open mind and avoid labeling at all times.  I will always give a player every opportunity to prove herself, especially after a mistake.  More to the point, I only strive to bolster a player's confidence to bring out the best in her ability - never to tear her down.  And let's not forget, we're talking about 8 year olds here!  Make it fun for them as much as possible.

Next Tuesday, I hope every girl at the tryout has a fantastic day.  I hope they make it really hard for the evaluators to rank them all.  Of course, I'll be rooting for one little girl in particular to show what she's made of.

If anyone sees a nervous looking forty-one year old man pacing in the parking lot frantically chewing  gum, don't mind him.  He's just working through some issues.

Good luck G!  Just be yourself.  You've made your father very proud already.

Monday, April 10, 2017

No. Thank you!

It sounds counterintuitive to say thank you for making my wife cry.  So let me explain it in a much longer way.

Michelle was inspired to start the “Random Acts of Kindness” exercise every March 21 after she read about a similar idea practiced by a family who lost a loved one to leukemia.  The timing was just before World Down Syndrome Day, so she just took the ball and ran with it on a whim.  

After witnessing this annual event the last few years, two overarching themes seem to be going on here.  The first theme is really just a simple exercise in altruism.  The second theme, obviously, is spreading awareness for those impacted by Down Syndrome.  

When Michelle first spearheaded her movement within our immediate family of five, the adults and kids alike were all so struck by how fun it was to see the reaction of strangers or friends on the receiving end of a kind gesture.  It just felt so good to give for the sake of giving - whether it be homemade cookies or buying a cup of coffee.  We are not religious people but this was an excellent example for our kids to witness and learn from, which probably speaks to any spiritual affiliation.  

The experiment caught on quickly among our own relatives and close friends.  Everyone was more than eager to get in on the act.  A lifelong friend of Michelle’s graciously contributed her artistic talents to create the 3/21 cards featuring our little Gus man - and has continued to do so every year since.  As my family became more entrenched within our own community over the years, our neighbors and friends joined in on the fun too.  Eventually, families connected to our kids’ schools got involved.  Ridiculously generous and creative gestures came out of the woodwork - some shared on the Facebook page or word of mouth, and some performed quietly and anonymously.  

Emboldened by the enthusiasm showed by others, Michelle solicited and received overwhelming support from many many business in and around our town.  Examples include but are not limited to Staples, Village Toy Store, Stone Forge, Hilliards, Ultimate Pizza, Back Bay Bagel, White’s Bakery, and Mario’s Trattoria donating gift cards, merchandise, or other generous gifts with very little convincing needed.  

The momentum just seems every year to spread further and further as our network spreads even well beyond outside our familiar circle to other peoples’ own friends and families.  We are always pleasantly surprised to learn of random acts by total strangers using our Gus cards - especially in places far outside the 02356 zip code or 508 area code!  

I am not exaggerating when I say that a kind of tipping point occurred in this event once our local educators became involved.  Honestly, is it any surprise that elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals for kids with or without special needs turn out to be the greatest advocates and facilitators of the Random Acts of Kindness?  Without question, our family was touched most profoundly by the overwhelming enthusiasm demonstrated throughout the schools of our town and especially Gus’ school, Parkview.  

To be honest, the attention almost embarrassed me at times.  We are friends with lots of families who have a loved one with DS.  I didn’t want any of them to think we were claiming some kind of exclusive right to World DS Day.  At the same time, I know all of us celebrate 3/21 in different ways.  Some are low key.  Others go kind of crazy (ahem, my wife) and hope that a local news channel or reality TV star will help spread the word next year.  

This brings me to the most important - and sobering - theme of spreading awareness.  As unbearably painful as it is to fathom, I know that someday, somewhere, somehow - Gus will be taunted or ignored by another kid.  Probably many times.  He will not be invited to a birthday party.  An adult will assume based on his appearance that Gus is less competent than he truly is.  Someday, I will have to explain what the word “retard” means.  My heart is in my throat and tears are welling in my eyes as I type these words.

Unfortunately, the offender will have absolutely no idea how hard Gus and his community of family, friends, educators, and therapists work every single day on the most banal activities that we take for granted.  Pronouncing words clearly.  Writing his name.  Ditching pull-ups forever.  Just engaging another kid his age in a prolonged conversation.  These are all milestones we are pursuing at the moment.  And we are going to get there eventually.  

Fortunately, we will have the strength to encounter any rotten apple moments because we know people like you and your children are all out there who can step in if we aren’t there to protect our son.  The parents who teach their kids to embrace differences without judgment.   The friends and neighbors who are unafraid to speak up for Gus to protect him when necessary.  The educators who teach and lead by example with their messages of support and inclusion.  You all are our saving grace.  

Last month, our family received many wonderful gifts both big and small from a bunch of you people.  We are so blown away by your thoughtfulness and generosity.  It was heartwarming to say the least.

Over anything else, though, what we sincerely appreciate the most is knowing that you have Gus’ back and the backs of any homie with an extra chromie.  Your support is the greatest gift.  A most sincere thank you to everyone who paid it forward - even if you made Michelle cry.