Thursday, November 11, 2004

Thinning the Herd

Slowly but surely, the group of boys is getting closer to becoming a team. On Wednesday morning I posted a list with twenty-one names, the boys who are still alive. I put it up inside my classroom window, and as I was taping it up, one of the boys stood on the other side of the glass, scanning down the list with his index finger. I knew he wouldn't find his name. He slowly travelled down the page until his finger ran out of names. His arm fell to his side, his shoulders dropped, and he turned and walked away.

Without question, this is the worst part of my job. I've talked about this before, so I'll try not to go on too much about it here, but I absolutely hate posting the list. My athletic career was spectacular only in the sense that my accomplishments fell spectacularly short of my dreams. I tried out for my high school baseball team in the ninth grade, along with about 200 other kids. I honestly thought that I would make it, but looking back now I realize that I had no shot. I wasn't any good.

The next year, at a new school, I tried out again with similar results. This time I had lower expectations, but I hadn't lost hope completely. When tryouts concluded, only minutes before sunset, the coach told us he would post the list in about thirty minutes; we could either wait or just check the list the next day. I didn't move a muscle. Half an hour later, an assistant coach came into the locker room and tacked a piece of paper up on the bulletin board. My name was not there.

What I remember vividly about that evening, though, was the reaction of another guy. He was older, probably a senior. He leaned against his locker, casually eating an ice cream cone as the list was posted. (He had obviously been relaxed enough to take a trip to the store.) He glanced at the list, but I saw no reaction. In that moment, I wanted to be him. He stood there so confidently, sure of his place on the team even before the list was posted, and I wondered what that must've been like. I still do. I never saw him again after that night, but I think of him often, at least once a year when I'm the one posting the list.

Two quick moments from practice. As I was selecting teams for a scrimmage on Tuesday, the boys were milling around on the court waiting to start. One of the boys, an eighth grader who may or may not end up on the team due to eligibility concerns, started flexing. He stretched his arms out in front of him and turned his hands inward, squeezing his biceps and triceps to life. He wasn't performing for anyone but himself, a fourteen-year-old boy clearly enamored with his own body. I called to him and told him that I wasn't impressed, but it was a lie.

The next day I came into the gym a few minutes late, and my assistant had already started the lay-up line. As I entered, Stephan got the ball at the head of his line. Before he started, he called to me to get my attention. When I looked up, he pounded the ball into the floor a few times, took a few strides towards the basket, then elevated and hammered down a dunk.

Stephan is only about 6'2", about an inch shorter than I am, but when we put our hands up above our heads, his reach extends about six inches beyond mine. When you consider that he can't weigh more than 150 pounds, perhaps it isn't that surprizing that he's dunking the ball, but it's still pretty impressive.