Just to put things in perspective. On a gut level I knew the coach working with M-ito was not very good from the moment I saw him. It was the nervous energy and the swinging of the lacrosse stick around and around that was the clue. He was posturing and that’s never a a good thing for a coach to do. The flips, the shooting at the goal himself after telling the kids not to shoot, the no guidelines for checking, the no seeing if the kid who was wiped out was okay – all came after. On a practical level, it took me all day to figure out the details of why that was so and why it would be good for M-ito to play with the younger less experienced group. Mom-ita knew instinctively what was what from the moment I started explaining the day to her. The first thing I said was, “It was okay overall… ” She knew. She trusts her belly barometer more than I do. And she knows me. I minimize and she zero’s in.
Momita and I are driving out to Long Island for lacrosse camp – day one. M-ito is in the back seat all geared up. We’ve got shoulder pads, shin guards, cleats, helmet, stick, and mouthpiece. We hear a knocking sound, like a knuckle on wood. It’s the sound of M-ito knocking on his cup. It’s his first one and he’s been fascinated by it ever since he put it on.
“This is so cool. Can you imagine if you got hit super hard with a ball right here?”
“It would hurt,” I say from the front seat.
M-ito ignores me and keeps knocking on his plastic cup.
I can’t remember the first time I wore one, but it was probably when I was seven and played my first year of football. I don’t remember it being anything fun to explore. But for my son – it is.
Knock, knock, knock.
All the parents have pulled out, the moms, the dads, the aunts and uncles. There’s thirty kids and three coaches, and me. M-ito goes with the older kids, sixteen in all and one of the coaches. the younger group goes with the two other coaches. I talk to one coach about my son and how new he is but the coach assures me they’ll figure out his skill level and put him in the right group soon enough. M-ito’s friend from school is four months younger and goes with the younger group.
I last sitting on the sidelines for half an hour, watching the young man with a lot of energy but not a lot of skills when it comes to keeping sixteen rambunctious kids of all different skill levels occupied, try to coach them through some drills. He’s young enough to still try and show off, doing back flips to impress the boys. He yells a lot and is constantly trying to get the kids in line. But he’s alone and doing drills with one boy going at a time leaves too many idle. That means fifteen are waiting around looking for something to do while they wait on line. That’s trouble waiting to happen. The temperature is high, already over ninety degrees. When he ends a drill I yell, “Water break,” and the coach says, “Good idea. Go get some water!” As he passes me I offer to help. “I’m going to be here all day so if you need any help, I’ll be glad to. Just tell me what to do.” The young man hesitates a second, then says, “Sure.”
I walk on to the field and I hear my son say, “Why does it have to be you?”
I know he’s talking about me and it stings but a Dad-dito’s gotta do what a Dad-dito’s gotta do. I get placed on a line and tell the kids to shoot on goal when they get to me while they’re doing drills. I tell kids to chase the ball they threw past the goal. I ask kids to get in line. I help them put on helmets , snap chin straps, put on elbow guards, put on mesh jerseys, hand out oranges to the kids who want them because I brought extras. I tap each one on the helmet when I’m done helping them with their equipment and tell them to “go.” One boy makes two comments about girls that are as old and sexist as they come. Some of the kids laugh. The coach asks him to watch his mouth the first time. The second time I go over to him on water break, tap him on the shoulder, point his face up to me a few inches away, and quietly say, “I don’t ever want to hear that language again. You understand?” The boy looks at me then nods and looks away. I tap him on the helmet and he keeps his mouth shut the rest of the day.
Mostly I keep my mouth shut and watch, do what the coach tells me to do and try to make sure no one gets hurt.
M-ito does well in the drills, is tentative in the skirmishes as he should be as a first timer, needs help on where to position himself on the field on both offense and defense but the coach is hot and tired and hasn’t explained the rules or any team tactics so he along with the other inexperienced kids are left to guess. I shout some suggestions during the scrimmage. “Spread out. Pass to the open man. Some concepts are the same no matter what sport.” Maybe the tactics talk will come tomorrow. There is one kid who knocks another kid down, cleans his clock actually. It was uncalled for and done not while he was going for the ball. He’s made to take a lap. He head checks another kid a few minutes later and I see it but the coach doesn’t. I let it go even though there are words between the players. It’s the same kid I talked to about his mouth earlier. That one’s trouble.
The first day of camp ends in a deep sweat with the kids getting hosed off with a power washer and the coach glad his first day is over. I wonder what he’s got in store for tomorrow. I talk to Mom-ita and we both agree M-ito ‘s going in the younger group with the newer players tomorrow. He argues at first, but his friend convinces him. He signed up to play with his friend in the first place and it’s a good reason to play with the other two coaches, who seemed to be a little more adept at what they were doing.
Gino’s Pizza and M-ito and his friend are laughing and fooling around, tickling each other and chomping their pizza alternately. The air conditioner is on. It’s 96 degrees outside. They both said they had a good time and want to go back tomorrow for more.
I hear it’s supposed to rain.
At least it’ll be cooler.
M-ito graduated from 2nd grade today. When the headmaster told the lower school that the 2009-10 school year was officially over and added, “you can yell as loud as you want to, now – ” the room exploded with K-4th graders going crazy – including M-ito. I watched him from a few rows back with Mom-ita. He yelled as loud as he could with his friends. It was a whole body yell. An exhalation of all the work he put into his education this year. So many evenings of push and pull over homework assignments. My son has his first real understanding of what summer vacation is about.
In Kindergarten he was too young to understand the rhythms of school and summer. Last year he was starting to understand the process but with the changing over from one school to another it was all still new to him. But this year… well, he yelled and screamed with the rest of his friends, his sneakers ready to run on grass, his ears listening to waves washing up on a beach, electrical impulses in his brain ready to encounter summer camp of three different types, and his psyche ready – almost longing for long endless days in the heat.
I can still feel those feelings in my bones, like it was just yesterday. The dry wind outside my window whispering… Summer.
I asked my friend, Big A (father of Little A), to put on a small lacrosse workshop for M-ito and a few of his friends. It was supposed to be an informal afternoon of learning the basics and maybe a little game playing. Big A played in college, was the captain of his team and coached when he got hurt. As he would say, “I wasn’t very good, there were a lot of others way better than me.” Sure, Big A. Sure.
Five kids and three parents with lacrosse sticks and Big A in the lead at Mik-ito’s house out on the Island. He’s got a good size yard and two goals so we went out there to practice. The rain held off. M-ito got frustrated after about a half an hour because one of his friends kept stealing the ball from him when they were supposed to be having a catch. I didn’t see it coming. Tears came to his eyes and he melted down. After we figured out what had happened the drills went on and then we played a game. There wasn’t supposed to be any stick checking (we had no pads and no gloves so that made sense). We should have made it the kids against the adults. That would have been a good idea but I didn’t think of it at the time, and neither did the other dads. Big A refereed and after another half an hour of play M-ito, in a scuffle to get the ball with sticks hacking at it on the ground, got hit in the shin and nose and went down in tears again.
There are so many parts to this experience that were both good and bad for my son. The good thing is these things happened with his friends and not at his first day of lacrosse camp with some strangers whacking him . The bad thing it they happened with his friends and he doesn’t understand why they hit him. I told him they didn’t do it on purpose, they were just going for the ball and got carried away. My son has never played a contact sport before and there is a certain energy to them, a certain amount of testosterone that gets plugged into the equation that helps things like this happen. I played until when I was seven, full pads (because my brother played and I wanted to do everything he did – go figure), tackle. I remember getting upset at the violence and being scared much of the time. It took me three years to get my footing with the idea that I was going to hit people and they were going to hit me – tackle and be tackled, block and be blocked. It took me that long to trust the pads to protect me and to find allow myself to use aggression in my game. One year I quit because the coach was a maniac and I developed twitches because he used to have us do tackling drills that were like gladiator fights with everyone watching (not the first time or the last I’d play those kinds of games with coaches). I played eleven years of football through the end of high school.
So I sat next to M-ito on our friend’s couch with Mom-ita on the other side as he cried and let the intensity of the experience run through him. It raged then settled and a rain came down outside that mirrored the tears falling inside and ended the game just in time. My son has not learned to be aggressive in sports yet, and he is only just learning to get his sense of this game called lacrosse. For that matter I’m learning how it’s played too. Team sports are good vehicles in which to learn about aggression and assertiveness, using your temper in constructive ways to play better but still within the confines of the rules and without hurting anyone. He started down that road today. Man it’s hard to watch.
What I noticed about my son’s lacrosse game is that he passed the ball when his friends did not – one pass to me scored us a goal. After running forward he stopped when he was cut off and looked to pass the ball to his team-mates. He played a good defensive game, covering well. He just hadn’t counted on getting hit in the face and shin. Maybe the shin was okay but the face was a surprise. One thing he doesn’t need is a nose like his Dad-dito’s. Mine’s been broken twelve times (once by a doctor so it could be pushed back into place from the far left side of my face back into the center – that was ugly).
I wonder how he’ll do in three weeks when he starts lacrosse camp. He’ll be helmeted and padded up so the knocks won’t be felt so much. Gloves will help. I hope the coaches are good and teach the kids to be good sports. I’m going the first day in any case so I can watch over the experience, and pick up the pieces if need be. I’m proud of him in any case for trying something new and different and for learning something about himself in the process.
We are finishing dinner. I’ve just found out that M-ito and all his classmates are given a yearbook at school and that it is a ritual to get signatures from your friends and classmates during this whole week. M-ito is excited about it and it makes me smile. He says he wants to get the headmaster’s signature.
“I know exactly what I’m going to write in my friend’s books,” he says.
“What?” Mom-ita asks.
“To my good friends, for G-ito and J-ito,” he begins, “and to my best friends, for Mik-ito and K-ito.” He smiles as he looks at us. A settled smile it is. He has made friends this year and has both good and best friends.
Last year at this time all was in chaos. We were changing schools and we left on unhappy terms with many parents and with much disappointment in faculty. I just reread my entry from one year ago, June 7th, 2009, Classroom Blues.
It is a year later and my son has found a home base for the next six years, and so have we.