I didn’t want to say it. I knew it wouldn’t be helpful, but I could hear the words echoing in my head. Over and over again. Until finally, I could no longer contain them.
“You know, this won’t be the only time in your life you take a risk and it doesn’t work out the way you hoped. I’m proud of you for trying. A lot of your friends wouldn’t have taken the chance.”
His shoulders slumped over the counter, long shaggy hair covering his eyes. It was obvious he was staring at his hands, the hands that had failed him. The hands that couldn’t get the ball to its intended target with enough precision, that couldn’t make the jump shots.
He tilted his head up only enough so that I could see his resignation. “It doesn’t matter.”
And with that, he took his twelve-year-old-aeropostle-clad-self off to his bedroom.
If you asked a neighbor, or a teacher, or a friend, they would probably tell you that life comes easy for my son. He is smart. He is kind. He has a million girls who want to be his friend on Facebook. He is a star on his soccer and cross country teams.
If you asked my son, he’d tell you a different story. A story about not wanting to fail in front of other people. Of self-inflicted pressure to succeed. Of an internal watchdog that struggles to keep him safe.
All of his friends play basketball. My son only plays pick-up games in driveways or gyms when the stakes are no greater than bragging rights at that night’s sleepover. He has never played an official game or been coached. So, it was with great hesitation and a lot of encouragement from his best buddies that he was the last 7th grader to sign his name to the basketball tryout sheet.
7th grade. The first year there is an official school team. The first year that they make cuts. A trusted adult friend who has coached forever told my son he should tryout, that he has natural talent. All of his gym-rat best friends kept on telling my son he would make the team. He began to believe them. When he asked me what I thought, I replied, “What have you got to lose? If you try and don’t make it you shouldn’t feel bad, you’ve never even played a real game.”
All this week, I dropped him off at the school at 4:30 sharp for the tryouts. Over three nights, they would narrow the field of 32 hopefuls down to a team of 15. He was the only kid who walked into the gym in running shoes instead of a pair of gigantic basketball shoes.
When I picked him up after the first night, he hopped into the front seat, kind of snickered and said, “Well, I don’t think I played well enough tonight to make the team, but I’ve still got two more nights.” And he then went on to tell me how he only made one of his four free throw shots and that he really sucked at left-handed layups. Feedback from his friends indicated that he had a 50/50 chance.
The second night things improved greatly. He came bouncing into the car, sweaty and starving, and declared, “I think I did a lot better tonight. I think I’m about in the middle. Conner thinks I have a 75% chance. Everyone else thinks I’ll make it. Mr. Brewster, the math teacher, says he’s rooting for me.”
He spent all of his free time shooting baskets in the driveway. At dinner he is talking full court press and three point shots. Language that is foreign in our soccer obsessed family. By the time I pick him up on the last night of tryouts, he really wants to make the team. No more “just trying it out to see what happens.” He wants it. Bad. Even though he won’t admit the depth of his desire out loud, he fails at hiding it. He’s talking new shoes.
Thursday arrives. The day the team will be announced. The boys will meet after school and play ball while the coach calls them in one by one to tell them their fate. I think of all those episodes of American Idol where they make the long trip up and down the elevator. My heart is pounding fast just visualizing what must be going on. Because my son was the last to sign-up, his name is last on the list. He will be the last one called and will most likely know if he made it before the coach utters a word. My daughters, usually unimpressed with their older brother who shines at everything, are keeping their fingers crossed. I am caught up in the optimism of my son and his friends. I pull my car up to the front of the school, waiting to see my jubilant son emerge.
Obviously, you already know the outcome. He opens the car door with an “Oh well,” and that’s about all I will hear about what happened. Except that he had seen the coach’s clipboard before he even started meeting with the players. He saw the list of names and the “Y’s” and “N’s” next to each name. He had known for an hour and a half before he got the official word. An hour and a half where he had to play ball with his buddies, laughing and cheering them on as they got the good news. He said he didn’t even remember what the coach had told him during his turn.
My heart felt overwhelmingly sad. The car was silent. My youngest daughter, strapped into her booster seat, put away the cowbell she was going to ring in celebration. I reached out and put my hand on his leg and said, “I’m sorry, Bud. I know you did your best. I’m proud of you.” No answer.
It was hours later, almost bedtime, when I blurted out my so-called words of wisdom. About life lessons being hard but good for us. Really? I should have said, “Honey, I know from experience that life lessons usually suck – at least while they’re happening.”
It was all over Facebook. “Awwweesssommmeee, I made the b-ball team!!!!!!!”, “Me too. We will rock!!!!!!!”, “I made the team. Bball is life!!!!” My son wisely stayed away.
I wanted to catch him. I wanted to hold him in my arms and cry for his pain, for my pain, and for all those sucky life lessons that still lay ahead. I wanted to make it better for him. But he wasn’t having it. Every time I moved forward I was greeted with “It’s OK.”
I went to bed feeling unsettled. It’s only basketball. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the cause, all you know is your child is in pain and you want to fix it.
This morning, as we were moving coma-like through our early morning routines, I started flashing to what today would be like at the middle school. Friends celebrating and envisioning their upcoming season. My son longing to be one of them. That’s when it hit me. My own life lesson. This wasn’t my thing to make better. He needed his friends this time – not his mom. He needed them to tell him it was awesome that he tried out. That they had all been playing forever and he hadn’t. Even stretching the truth a little to soothe his bruised ego by telling him he should have gotten a spot. I had to trust these young men to be there for my son.
It’s hard enough to give up the care and comforting of our children to other adults – to babysitters, teachers and camp counselors. It’s a million times harder to trust a pack of competitive twelve-year-old boys with the task. But, I realized this morning that it’s the next step in growing-up. For me and for my son. The next time all those boys drag their dirty, stinky feet into my house and empty my refrigerator of all that is still edible, I know I will have to stop myself from pulling each of them aside and whispering, “Please take good care of him.”
photo courtesy of photo bucket.