A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

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