Last night, in the midst of our usual heated discussion about the unkempt state of his room, the Jawa dropped a new one on me. “I’m always acting badly,” he said, apropos of nothing. “That’s why I’m always the last person picked for basketball.”
See, that’s the way it is. You think you’re talking about messed-up rooms, when all along you’ve been talking about self-esteem and the cruelty of playground politics.
When I was a kid, I was always chosen last, partly because I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, but also because I was completely uncoordinated. In response, I threw aside everything I was already good at -- trivial things like math, science, reading and writing – and put all my energy into becoming, ultimately, a mediocre athlete. All in the name of avoiding the indelible scarlet “S” for “spaz.”
How great would it be to have a device that freezes time? Only for a few minutes, as long as it takes to digest whatever new parenting challenge you’ve got. Then you’d have the time to formulate the proper response, immediately solving your child’s problem and reassuring him of his value.
Having left my time-freezing device in my other pants, I said the first thing that came to my mind: “Getting picked last sucks. The only way to stop getting picked last is to work harder.”
Nice work there, Lombardi. Very inspirational.
Five minutes later, a very defensive Jawa was alone in his room with his door closed. I was out in the living room, wringing my hands. “I mean, what was I supposed to say?” I asked the overworked Sandra Bullock, who glanced up briefly from her laptop then returned to her work flow chart. “He wants me to say that they’re all jerks for picking him last. I can’t do that. I know how it works.”
How it works is that you move to Seattle when you’re 23 and still have hair. You meet a bunch of guys who spend every day playing basketball or volleyball and every night at bars. You get tight with these guys in the drunken foxhole manner only shared by hard-core drinking buddies. You’re the newest member of their unstoppable posse. Then one day, some guy you’ve never met shows up courtside, a guy who’s got a little bit of a street edge to him, who you’ve never seen at the bars but seems to know all of your friends. There’s an uneven number of players, and that guy, not funny, not loyal, of no value at a bar, he gets to play while you watch from the sidelines, hoping that a constant stream of funny comments will mask how it feels to be reminded, even after years of devoting yourself to games played with balls, that in the sports world, court vision and crisp chest passes trump friendship.
That’s how it works.
You bet it sucks at age 23. It sucks ten times as much when you’re 12 and they’re picking people who’ve never played before they’re picking you, especially if one of the guys picking teams has been your best friend since kindergarten. That's a reality no 12-year-old is prepared to face, much less one as tightly wound as the Jawa.
There are times – of increasing frequency as we approach the teenage years – when you have to slough off your child’s obviously poor behavior in service to a greater truth. Did the Jawa respond to everything I’d said in his room by arguing and getting increasingly angry and defensive? Yes. Could it be that this is exactly the sort of behavior that leaves him sitting on the sidelines, alone? Absolutely. Is it my job to cut through that, strap on an extra layer of reptile-gauge skin and march back into his room for a more in-depth father-son chat? You better believe it.
So after a few minutes of feigning interest in American Idol (like Simon Cowell, I think this is my last season), I walked slowly back to the Jawa’s room. Employing a soft, unconfrontational aura, I quietly knocked on his door, went in and sat on his floor.
The problem, sometimes, is that we try to solve the problem before taking the time to listen. Not getting picked for sports? No problem. We’ll buy a basketball and start having hoops training sessions after school. In no time they’ll be eating their words. Anyone over 40 knows how well that short-sighted approach worked when Mike Brady tried to teach Peter how to box in the wake of his beat-down at the hands of Buddy Hinton.
Besides, this time it’s basketball, but next time it could be anything. My skewed worldview tells me that being that last one picked for Mathletes isn’t in the same league as being left on the sidelines during P.E., but there are many around me who like to remind me that it is, indeed, the same pain.
In reality, there’s not much chance anyone gets through life completely sidestepping the feeling of being the last one picked. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it sting any less, especially when you’re 12 and the people leaving you out are the only peer group you’ve known since you were five.
There’s a chance that, after eight years in the same school, my child is simply ready to move on – or they’re ready to move on from him. There’s a chance that he’s inherited certain personality quirks that make it more difficult to get along on a day-to-day basis than it should be. There’s also a chance that everyone he knows is hitting their teenage prime, making each and every meeting between them a riotous explosion of counter-effective hormones. This is why I was never a middle school teacher.
I wanted to tell my Jawa that we’ve been told that he’s the best saxophone player in the school and that I wasn’t kidding when I called him my “home IT desk.” His computer acumen is that good. I wanted to explain to him that sometimes having the skills to interact with people in a pleasant but shallow way is an easier way to get through life than bouncing from intense emotion to intense emotion, always at war, unable to sidestep even a single buried explosive in the minefield of everyday life.
I wanted to tell him because I want his life to be easy and happy. He shouldn’t have to fight his way through every day. Then again, as the venerated philosopher Popeye said, “I am what I am,” so it might be easier to figure out how to get him used to dodging the arrows others seem to slip through with effortless style and grace than to ask him to become someone else.