Bennett Junior High School, 1976
I stood there alone staring at the slats of the huge hardwood floor. I was aware of the others in the room but I was trying desperately to be invisible.
I knew that there were two groups of people staring at me. It was dead quiet, except for the far-off sounds of other kids doing whatever kids do in the quad of a junior high school.
As I stood in the gymnasium, a hulking brick building that made up one side of the quad, I wished I was out there. I wouldn’t feel any more welcomed or part of something out there than I did right here, but at least I wouldn’t be trying desperately not to cry and end up making this situation far worse than it already was. In my mind I was pleading with some unknown force to save me. I don’t know who because I knew nobody would help me. I tried to believe in a god who, even if I believed existed, had betrayed me over and over again, so my hopes weren’t high.
The two groups of boys in their regulation blue gym shorts and white T-Shirts started to stir and mumble. The gym teacher, Mr. Freeman, was a big, tall, hearty, white-haired man. He had two personalities – gruff or laughing. Most of the time he was gruff – all business, but when he laughed, he did so with his whole body. He had capped teeth and a smoker’s laugh, which, at the time, I thought odd for a gym teacher. But this was in the 1970’s. You could still smoke inside parts of hospitals. On this day, like most, he was in a gruff mood.
I wasn’t afraid of Mr. Freeman. He always treated me with respect, although I have no idea why. In fact, most teachers treated me with a great deal of respect. I was never really afraid of adults that I wasn’t related to. In fact, I felt more comfortable with adults than with kids my own age; or any age. I related more to adults. Most of the time I felt like an adult trapped in a kid’s body.
In those last moments of studying knots in the wood grain of the hardwood floor. I heard Mr. Freeman clear his throat, and then I heard him say, “Do you ‘captains” have any clue what you are doing’?. The two teams of boys who had been picked by the aforementioned captains, and the captains themselves, shifted uncomfortably. I don’t recall how the two team captains were selected. I don’t recall getting a vote. But two had been chosen and the age-old, archaic ceremony of picking whom each wanted on their basketball team for this gym period, went on as they always do. The pecking order was well established. The athletic kids and buddies of the captains were picked first. Then that middle group, who were not so popular but in some way acceptable in the school’s hierarchy, was selected for a team. And then, in the final, gut-wrenching moments, as the “remainders” were scoffed at, and as the captains begrudgingly pointed and waved over a few to his respective team, the remainders weren’t staring at the captains or at the floor anymore.
We were staring at each other. We were pleading with each other. We were imploring someone in this group of misfits to honorably accept being the last one picked. We had sympathy and empathy for each other. It was also an intellectual fight to the death. We were terrified.
I was one of those remainders. And on this day it turned out that there were an uneven number of boys. So when the picking got slim, the remainders all knew that someone would be the final one standing with no hope of having an obvious home among the two teams of boys.
That’s where I stood in that moment – fixated on the hardwood floor, when I heard Mr. Freeman clear his throat and ask the team captains if they knew what they were doing.
I didn’t know what Mr. Freeman meant and I don’t think the captains did either. As Mr. Freeman waited those few seconds after his question, I don’t think he really expected an answer. And I stood there, trying desperately to block out who I was, and where I was, and what was going on around me. I fought desperately to hold back tears. I ran through different scenarios in my head at lightning speed as to how I could flee, and hide. I accepted my fate, once again, and the humiliation and abject terror on not being wanted by anyone. I tried to make my eyes and my soul as dead as possible, hoping that nobody would see the fear.
Then, I heard Mr. Freeman’s voice again. “If I were you, I would have picked Steven first, and do you know why?”
What the hell was he talking about? I lifted my eyes from the floor, up toward him and he was looking back and forth between the two team captains. Mr. Freeman continued:
“Before we picked the captains and picked the teams, what did we do? We practiced shooting baskets, dribbling the ball, passing the ball, just a little warm-up, right? Well, did any of you notice that Steven here has one of the best senses of rhythm and timing I’ve seen in a long time? Did you watch him run down the court while dribbling the ball in front of him, or at his side? Did any of you, and especially you team captains, take an honest look at the field of players, or had you already decided which of your buddies you wanted on your team. Timing and rhythm is an essential part of being a good basketball player and if I were you, I would want him on my team. He should not be standing there because nobody picked him.”
No. No. No. Oh God. No. Please don’t look at me. What was he talking about? Was that true? I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m not good at sports. I’m not good at anything. Why is everyone looking at me? I don’t have anything special about me, or anything someone should take notice of. Nobody has ever said anything like that before. I’m just the overweight, non-athletic 12-year-old, trying to get through the 7th grade without anybody seeing me. I don’t know what he’s talking about. PLEASE don’t involve me.
I looked back and forth between the two team captains, yeah, two “fellow seventh graders”, and I implored them silently not to believe Mr. Freeman and without words, gave them permission to continue looking down on me. I was nothing. Nothing to see here. Go about your business. I can handle the humiliation. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable here. Let’s just forget all of this and go about our business, separately.
While my eyes shifted back and forth between the captains, and occasionally back down to study the grain in the hardwood floor, there was mumbling, and whispers that I couldn’t make out. And Mr. Freeman may have said more things but I had tuned him out, too. And then my internal turmoil was interrupted by Mr. Freeman nudging me from behind, gently, not forcefully. It was more like an encouragement. I came out of my haze and the two team captains were saying “I’ll take him” and the other one said “No you had the last pick, I’ll take him”. And they went back and forth a few times until Mr. Freeman nudged me far enough along and he decided which team I would play on.
I don’t remember a single thing that happened after that. I don’t remember whose team I was on. I don’t remember a single name of any of the kids that were there. But as I sit here 35 years later, I still remember the smile on Mr. Freeman’s face when I stood with my “team”. He looked at me. And I looked at him. We never spoke about it. Not during that day in gym, or ever again. And from that day on, I do remember that every day in gym class when it was “basketball” day, I wasn’t picked last anymore.
Some kids were afraid of Mr. Freeman, many simply didn’t like him. He had some measure of silent joy in being able to intimidate kids. He was loud and unrelenting.
I wasn’t one of those kids. I understood him. What I didn’t realize is that he understood me. Because of that day 35 years ago, and for every day since that I am reminded of him and what he did for me, he is my hero.