No Dull Boys, Not Even You, Jack
It’s not for lack of trying.
Ever since they were old enough to kick a ball, turn a somersault, and weave a multi-colored tote bag on a floor loom, we’ve signed our kids up for activities. Partly, we did this because it helped to pass some of the long hours that make parents look at the clock and think, “How can it only be 8 a.m.? We’ve made playdough, cut out paper people, walked down to the busy road to count red cars, read fifteen books, and baked cookies. Sweet Clock in the Sludge, but how can it only be 8 a.m.?” However, we also enrolled them in gymnastics, soccer, archery, day camps, ski lessons, and language groups with an eye toward that elusive thing called Personal Betterment. Basically, we wanted to give our kids opportunities to find interests, to develop potential passions, to realize abilities and affinities. As a bonus, sometimes they would whirl out of an art class, excitedly holding an off-kilter clay blob, and I would think, “Hallelujah! Looks like we can mark ‘Find Grandma a birthday present’ off our to-do list.”
There was also a long-term eye being cast to the kids’ futures as Taller People. For both Byron and me, it was extracurriculars that eased the potentially tough years of our teens. In the case of Byron, with his family having strong Norwegian and Minnesotan roots, he was on cross-country skis from the time he was four; eleven years later, his ease on the slopes led him to the high school ski team, which then took him to the off-season-training sport of cross-country running, which then opened up an understanding that he had endurance abilities, which now, in his forties, has developed into a new passion for swimming, particularly in open water. Thanks to this chain of interests, he’s approaching his mid-forties as a man who is fit, spirited, and motivated. Side bonus: he also has an enviably thick hoodie gained this past summer when he completed a 2.1 mile swim in Lake Superior, from Bayfield, Wisconsin, out to Madeline Island, and back again. Even bigger side bonus: his ability to endure has made him singularly well-equipped for life with me.
In my case, the string of extracurriculars started in elementary school, when I joined the Brownie troop, and continued when I launched into ballet and piano classes. Eventually, I played flute in the school band and learned the mysteries of a double-reed instrument one summer when I took up bassoon. Always, there was music. Always, there was movement. As I age, my every day is still full of both, for I take a few moments every evening to chassé my way over to the piano bench before hacking out some Chopin. I also continue to reap daily benefits from my primary high school extracurricular: the speech team. Once I joined forensics, I found My People, and that in itself is a significant moment in the life of the teenager. Unlike many who attended my Montana high school, My People didn’t have rifle racks hanging on the back windows of their pick-up cabs. Rather, my people wore thick glasses and knew how to ace standardized tests. In a fascinating correlation, those with rifle racks in their pick-up trucks still live in the same town thirty years later, having changed most significantly in the model of truck they drive; in contrast, the myopic test-takers busted out of town and are now scattered around the globe. They have been to open-air markets. They have tasted spices whose names they can’t pronounce. Even though we haven’t seen each other for decades, they are still My People.
In addition to community, the speech team brought me skills and insights that I draw upon every day in my adult life. Competing in speech meets showed me that I will forever be a person who has to hole up in the bathroom before standing up and speaking in front of a group of people. As well, it showed me that once I’m done speaking before a group, I will manage to be both elated and in need of a quick cry. Knowing that I function this way, I now plot both bathroom and weeping time into my teaching schedule. Further, when I’m in the classroom, standing up there feeling dehydrated, I am constantly drawing upon the training I received from those high school years in forensics. Gestures happen above the waist. I am aware of “body blocking”–that I should accompany a change of subject with a change in where I’m standing, and when I’m heading left, it’s my left foot that should start the move (and vice versa). I look my audience in their bloodshot eyes, and I modulate my voice, using a range of dynamics and tempos to engage those listeners who aren’t staring at their crotches and tapping away on the screen that they’re “hiding” in Central Genitalia. All the many things I absorbed during my career in Original Oratory (with the occasional foray into Memorized Public Address–for I HAD A DREAM, PEOPLE!) play into my current career. Without that extracurricular, I might not be a teacher. At the very least, I’d be a very different kind of teacher, one who faces the whiteboard for the entire hour, never turning around measure the impact of my words and actions. In other words, I’d be teaching math.
The upshot is that both Byron and I believe that extracurriculars are important to a young person’s development. One of our kids has conformed perfectly to her parents’ values–as every child should, without question–for Allegra loves running, skiing, photography, and writing. Having just entered high school, she’s thriving on the cross-country running team, both in terms of her strength and health but also when it comes to finding Her People. She doesn’t talk much, our girl, but she’s a rock solid teenager of admirable character, and gradually, her chatty, less-together teammates are discovering the beauty of having Allegra’s yang to their yin. In many ways, teenage social groups don’t reward peers for being people who show up on time, who have all their equipment, who have prepared a wee giftie for their secret buddies (despite never receiving any wee giftie in return), who are diligent and focused, who know the names of all 135 runners on the team, who lead with reserve but who are deeply observational. But get this: cross-country runners, as a type, do. For the young woman who lives in our house, participation in cross-country is providing her with a kind of confidence and sense of belonging that she could never get from her family or her teachers.
And then there’s *typist pauses to emit a long, weary sigh* eleven-year-old Paco. This would be a good point to take a breather, Dear Reader. Go ahead and take a second to scroll up to the top of this post and reread the opening sentence.
Back now? Okay, then there’s Paco.
In this kid, we have perhaps the only boy on Planet Earth who dislikes moving his body. Sports? Not so much. As a rule, he also really hates group activities because, y’know, people. Even more, he wants no part of anything that involves a clock or competition. Truth be told, I understand. He is who he is, and his charms run deep. It’s just that we want him to face situations where he has to cope, deal, adjust–where he isn’t always within the safe parameters of his comfort zone (a place that looks a whole lot like a couch with a book on it). Just as importantly, parents shouldn’t be the ones to bring the whole world to their children; sometimes parents need to get out of the way so that Whole World is allowed a direct line.
Don’t get me wrong: Paco has hobbies. He reads. Also, he reads. I’m not complaining because another thing he really likes is reading. On occasion, he agrees to accompany his mother on her Walkies, mostly because she’s extremely clever and spends the walk interviewing him about what he’s been building in Minecraft and what level he’s at in Cube World. Moreover, as someone who loves weaponry, he will spend some time in the yard with his bow, shooting arrows at a target. At heart, he’s an artist; fortunately, he got the right father to feed that habit. Currently, the two of them have put in weeks and weeks making polished mud balls using a technique called dorodango. Once the project is finished, rest assured I’ll post about my son’s and husband’s balls. With pictures.
For sure, the kid is interesting. It’s just that he won’t have his photo scattered throughout the high school year book. That’s okay.
However, last week, we received an email from his school about various after-school clubs that will be running this year. Jumping out at us was mention of a Robotics club. The one camp Paco agreed to do this past summer was Robotics. Basically, with Robotics, kids learn how to write mini-computer programs and then use them to control “robots” they’ve built out of various materials, often Legos. There are battles between the robots; there are winners. Because Paco participated in the camp with a hyper-competitive friend (whose need to always be best sometimes exhausts our lad), their robot, Cutiepie, ended up winning the overall camp championship–the campionship!–at the end of the week.
Thus, the camp brought to him programming, design, teamwork, and the thrill of victory. Since it had been such a positive experience for him, we stood in the kitchen last week, urging him to sign up for the Robotics club at his school. If he gets into Robotics through his school, he could one day be on a high school team, and their competitions are huge, held over the course of a weekend at the convention center, with cheering fans, pep bands and a festive colosseum-battle feel. It’s also possible I get my geek on when we attend the annual ‘bot battles, going a little crazy with picking my favorites and then holding my breath when they compete–which is, umm, to say: I want this for my kid.
As Byron and I asked our boy to consider joining the Robotics club, Paco, not surprisingly, resisted. He worried that he wouldn’t know anyone else in the club, especially since his hyper-competitive friend is already in so many extracurriculars that he wouldn’t be able to add Robotics to his tight schedule. When we suggested that it’s okay to join something, even if you’re the only person you know in the room, he became even more reluctant and asked, “Why? Why do I have to do anything? School is a lot, and I like to come home.” At the same time he voiced these thoughts, it was apparent in his eyes that he wanted to do this thing; it’s just his nature to worry. Fortunately, it’s his parents’ nature to shove him past his objections and into occasional action. In such moments of cajoling-leading-to-a-form-being-filled-out, their opening tactic has historically been to become preachy.
Poor kid. All he had wanted was a quick snack before heading to the couch to read about fantastical worlds. But now. Stuck sitting at the island in the kitchen, listening to blowhard adults unleash their arguments.
Byron’s opening salvo was to mention a newspaper article he’d read the day before that noted the single most-essential time in a person’s life to take risks is middle school. While Byron didn’t have text or citation on hand, his Internet-trolling wife later discovered that the Washington Post had published the article, which points out, “…middle school should be seen as an important time to let kids begin to develop their identities apart from their parents. Who a child will become is not a foregone conclusion, and without trying a lot of new things, how can a young person truly know who she is?”
Unmoved by mentions of newspaper articles, Paco dipped his biscotti into his tea before recommitting to his stance: “I just want there to be someone I know in the club, and then I’d join.”
Inserting myself into the coercion, I announced, “No matter what, I think you need to do this club. You have no other activity outside of school. We’re going to insist on this. And what your dad just said about taking risks and how the article argues that it takes bravery to become an adult is really true. Now, having affirmed the rightness of you joining the club, even if you don’t know anyone, I’m about to undermine everything we’ve just been saying by suggesting something. Aren’t the clubs open to grades 5-8? And isn’t your favorite person on the planet in 5th grade at your school? And isn’t his dad my cousin? And don’t I know how to send a message to Elijah’s parents? Why yes, yes, I do.”
BAM. With that idea, which basically fulfilled all of Paco’s personal criteria and let him have his own way, he was in.
As he bounced excitedly in his chair, spilling his tea and smearing biscotti chocolate onto the island, I warned him, “Okay, so we have an answer that pleases us all. However, since this process went a bit too easily for you, I’m going to need you to sit there and listen to my points about extracurricular activities and why they matter at any stage of life. Gather in a deep breath, Son, and grab yourself a piece of beef jerky, for I’m about to become seriously pontifical.
All right, so you know how I like to go running–especially out on trails?”
“And you know how I did that trail race last weekend?”
Gaze deliberately focused on jerky.
“Well, as I was running out there on those trails, throwing myself into an activity that makes me thrum but at which I’m not naturally gifted, I had a lot of time to consider what I was doing and why I do it. Here are the lessons that trail running brings to me, and do not even try to slip off that stool just as I’m getting revved up:
1) It’s okay to feel nervous. Although I move my body every day, and although I adore running on trails and have done myriad trail races, I still lost sleep the night before the race. Would I dress warmly enough? Should I wear a ball cap? Would my body rebel and decide to announce, ‘Uh, yea: I don’t think so’? Would I walk to the car when it was all over and think, ‘I could have done better’? Would my bowels decide they’d been feeling neglected and want my full focus? Trail racing reminds me that if I worry, it means I care. If I ever have signed up for something–made an agreement to be somewhere and do something–and my innards don’t send me a few messages of joy, excitement, or, yes, even nerves, then I’m not truly invested. The lesson to be gleaned from my anxiety is this: I have a limited number of decades in my life, and I should pack them with situations that make me nervous so that I can feel all the feels. Ultimately, the payoff for weathering nerves is significant.
2) Pay attention to the details. As I ran the race out on those gnarly trails, I had to clap my eyes hard onto the roots and rocks. I needed to have a sense of what was coming down the trail–because when I’m oblivious, I get tripped up, start crushing things, and miss nuance. Indeed, if I’m not seeing the small stuff, I’m skimming across the surface of life’s magic. Even more, when I focus on details for an extended period of time, something happens to the way my brain works. When I was running that race, time passed differently, for I was unable to measure the distance. I couldn’t look at street signs and count blocks; I couldn’t see the next mile yawning in front of me. Because the race took place on particularly technical trails, I had to keep my eyes on my feet constantly, in an effort to stay on them. The second I looked up and lost concentration on the minutiae, I caught a toe, went flying, and bit into my tongue. Thus, it was essential that I train my eyes on every jutting rock, leaning tree trunk, haphazard log, half-buried boulder, and random bird carcass; blissfully, in that process, my brain became meditative. Worries about students, meetings, colleagues, family, overdue books, dinner plans, oil changes, purchase orders, unfolded laundry, putting the garden to bed, grading papers, sending emails–all fell away. There was only me, in the moment, in that place, setting down one foot, then the other, deeply absorbed by the specifics.
3) Stay with the flow. When presented with an obstacle like a swampy puddle, I need to trust my rhythm and ability. It’s disruptive to lurch to a stop, stutter my feet, and dance around, figuring out what to do. Not only does that make me look like a three-year-old who needs to ‘make tinkles,’ it signifies I am willing to give way to indecision in a moment when action is called for, and I don’t want to be that person. I can tarry and stare at the muck before attacking it, or I can just get down to business attack the damn stuff. Either way, I’m getting past it, and I’d rather err on the side of efficiency.
What’s more, the domino effect of indecision slows down everyone around me; it shuts down the group’s forward momentum. When I approach an obstacle on the trail, my inner voice cautions, ‘Stop over-thinking, and just take the leap. The second your foot hits the other side, you’ll feel like you own the world. Plus, once you’re over it, you can turn around and extend a hand to the person behind you.’
4) Get dirty. Somewhere during the third mile, as I hit a particularly huge patch of mud, I realized there was no way around it, so I plunged right in. I sank, and then there was sucking, and within two seconds, I was buried up to my calf. When I started to pull my foot out, my shoe started to peel off. In the past, race organizers have recommended participants wind duct tape around their shoes, to keep them on, and suddenly I cracked up at the notion of my shoe becoming a bottom-feeder while I hobbled the rest of the course with one bare foot. As I reached down and gave my shoe an assist, I giggled. Hours later, as I stood in the shower, scrubbing my calves, I enjoyed another good snortle.
5) It isn’t about other people. The winner of this race completed the course in literally half the time that it took me. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t running his race; I was running my race. The whole endeavor was about applying effort to turn in my best performance–to see what I was capable of, on that given day, on that difficult course. If we measure our success against other people, if we define ourselves in relation to others, then we never see our own selves clearly. I can only be myself, doing my own thing. Plus, that poor guy who won the race had to stop after a mere forty-four minutes–while I, in full rock star mode, had almost an hour-and-a-half of juice in me. As the skinny, fleet-of-foot guy sat in the grass, recovering, my less-runner-like physique kept going and going. If anyone was intimidated that day, he should have been afraid of me. Seriously, he might have headed home, showered, gone out for sushi, and had a beer, and I still could have been running. When it comes to my day on the trail, I was a powerhouse of elephantine endurance, and that helps me believe I’m awesome.
6) Understand that friends come and go. During the race, I started out behind a long-time friend whom I hadn’t seen in months; we were quickly joined by an acquaintance. The first minutes of the race were spent catching up, getting to know each other, chatting easily. After a bit, the fastest of our group took off at her natural pace, and then a couple other runners fell in with us. I learned that Amy’s husband of twelve years screwed her over last year, but now she’s dating a first-grade teacher, and, man, is that different from dating a lawyer. I learned that Amy and Rita are both alcoholics. I learned that Liz is a nurse and that she knows my cousin. Then Liz took off into the woods, and Rita fell back a bit, and Amy and I carried on. After awhile, Amy fell back, too, yet in the final mile, she tore past me. Indeed, even when friends disappear from sight, there’s still every chance I’ll run into them again at some point down the path. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
7) Find your own space and delight in the peace. Speaking of Amy and all I came to know about her difficult and tragic life, a great motivator behind my running is the desire to get away from others. At some point, I realized I was tired of hanging in there with Amy’s litany of woes, and so I sped up, wishing her well as I pulled away. During that middle stretch, before Amy regained ground and passed me, I was by myself in the woods, unable to see any other runners. It was quiet, warm, blissful. To be in the woods alone is this agnostic’s idea of heaven. Soaking in the peace, I marveled at the beauty.
8) Don’t forget to look up and survey the big picture. Despite my focus on every rock and root as I ran, I also made sure I lifted my face to soak in the glory of the trees. I turned my cheeks to the sun and, as it shone its face upon me–a benediction–I felt alive from my scalp to my toenails. Seeing myself as a small part of a bigger picture is profound, affirming, and rousing.
Ultimately, when we challenge ourselves on trails, plunge ourselves into races, engage in activities outside of life’s daily tasks, value ourselves enough to develop new abilities, explore the world around us with curiosity and interest, push beyond the known and comfortable,
the rewards we reap are immeasurable.”