What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Frank walked with Josh to the locker room, then took him to the coach’s office and knocked on the door. Coach McKinley was a young man of small, slight stature, which surprised Josh. He was used to large, muscular coaches with overbearing attitudes and little use for boys of Josh’s type. Coach McKinley looked to be about 25 and was smaller than some of the high school students Josh had just passed in the hall.
The coach smiled at him and shook his hand, then told Frank to go get dressed. He had an easy manner about him, and his instruction to Frank sounded more like a suggestion to a friend than a teacher commanding a student. When Frank had left, the coach asked Josh to sit down, then came out from behind the desk and, pushing some papers aside, sat himself on the front edge.
“So Josh, welcome to Taft. How’s it been so far?”
Josh looked at the floor, then looked up. His natural reticence when talking with someone new limited him to his usual brevity. “Surprising,” he said softly.
Coach McKinley grinned at him. Josh was used to being greatly intimidated by gym coaches. As a breed, they were among his least favorite of men and certainly were his least favorite of all teachers. This one seemed different. In the first place, he seemed friendly, and in the second, interested in Josh. Weird.
“Surprising, huh? Yeah, coming from Kennedy I imagine it is. I saw your papers that Mrs. Birchmeyer sent around. Now I see you. I know something about that school. I think you’re going to find you like Taft a whole lot more.
“Let me tell you a little bit about gym here. We like to take a somewhat different approach to gym, different from other schools I know about at least. At a lot of schools, gym is set up for the aggressive kids, the larger kids. It’s their place to shine, and they’re allowed to do so. Many coaches and gym teachers seem to think the reason they’re there is to see students achieve certain goals or standards in their programs. They don’t like to take into account they’re dealing with kids of different abilities, different skills, and most importantly, different natures. They want certain results, the big kids and the naturally athletic kids can easily achieve those results, and so they cater their programs to those kids. But frequently those kids, because they are bigger and stronger and are being given a certain amount of freedom, take advantage of it. If they’re not restricted and limits aren’t enforced, they can make life hell for the smaller or less athletic kids. A lot of coaches don’t seem to care.
“I know this because I experienced it first hand. I was one of the smaller kids all through school. Now I’m one of the smaller adults. I know something about worrying about gym class every day.”
He grinned at Josh, who was surprised to find himself grinning back at a gym teacher. That was definitely a first for him.
Coach McKinley continued. “I can guess what it’s been like for you. Every day, whatever class came before gym, about half your mind was worrying about what came next. Then you had to walk to the locker room, every step of the way wishing you were sick or you’d brought a note from home excusing you or you could twist an ankle or something. Then you pushed open the door and the very smell of the place set your stomach off. The noisy kids were shouting to each other, all confident and intimidating and you sort of wished you could shrivel up and disappear. At least, that’s what it was like for me. I hated gym.”
“But you became a gym teacher!” Josh blurted out. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What this guy was telling him was pretty close to his own reactions to gym. This guy understood. But then he went on to become a gym teacher? That didn’t make any sense.
Coach McKinley laughed. “Pretty strange, huh? Now I’m coaching PE. In my case, I got lucky. I had a coach who cared about the kids in his program. He was a typical gym teacher, too, in some ways. He was big and strong with a gut hanging over his shorts and a menacing sort of look to him. But he cared about his kids. All of them. He worked with everyone, the ones who had ability and the ones that didn’t. I found out, when someone took the time to work with me, I was a pretty fair athlete. I hadn’t known that before. And I found I enjoyed working out. I could tell you how I went from there to becoming a gym teacher but unfortunately there isn’t time for it, and it’d probably bore you anyway. Let me just say this. I try to do what my gym teacher did. I try to make this period of the day good for everyone. Smaller kids don’t get hassled in this program. Neither do kids who can’t turn around without falling over their own feet. They feel badly enough about themselves already without me making it worse. In here, they don’t have to worry about anyone teasing or harassing them. I won’t allow it. So it doesn’t happen here.
“But hey, Josh, I need to get out on the floor. I just wanted to get to know you a little and let you know that there’s nothing to worry about here. You’ll be safe, you might even find you’re happy coming to gym every day. That’s what I hope for, what my aim is. Now, let me get you some gear.”
He stood up, then turned back around. “Oh, one more thing. I guess an important thing. We do have a mandatory shower rule here. That was always something I dreaded at your age. I hated that most of all. I’m young enough that I remember all about it. I lived through it, and know how bad it can be. But now I see there can be a good side, too. Here I try to provide kids the opportunity to realize the good side and I try even harder to eliminate the bad side.
“Anyway. You’re going to have to do it. But before you start to get antsy, let me say, we monitor the showers closely. There’s nothing going on in here when kids are showering that shouldn’t be. I don’t allow it. No negative comments, no roughhousing, no towel snapping or yanking them off anyone, no intimidation, no nothing. Period. Personal respect is mandated. But let me tell you why I believe in showers in high school. One, after exercising, you need them. That’s important. But two, I think boys from 14 to 18 need to know that they look like everyone else. There’s a lot of worry in those ages about whether you’re normal. And it’s natural to wonder how you compare. In the showers, everyone sees everyone else, and you guys all learn that, within a range of course, you all look about the same, especially in regard to others you own age. There’s a great comfort, learning that. You also learn after a time that there’s something to be gained from being able to be a little freer about your body than you were when you were afraid to walk naked to those showers for the first time. It becomes liberating, and you gain some confidence from it. You learn you can be comfortable walking around naked with other people, and some of your fears disappear. It also helps you to know you’re doing something you were afraid to do, and it no longer bothers you. That’s a real growth experience. So I’m all for it. However, and I need to stress this, if you have a problem, other than the normal one of just being a little reluctant, tell me and we’ll talk about it. I’m an understanding guy, Josh. I’m small, like you are. If you have a valid reason to avoid the showers, you can get excused. Dr. Collins is very, very strong about everyone having their personal dignity preserved at this school, and I agree with him 100 percent. This is the time to tell me if you have a problem. I’ll take you seriously. Please believe me on that. I’m on your side.”
Coach McKinley looked at Josh with his gentle eyes. Josh looked back and said, “It’s okay. It’s no problem. If I could shower at Kennedy, I’m sure I can do so here, too. It was sometimes pretty tough there. I survived it. I’ll be fine.”
The coach smiled. “Great! Okay, let’s get you dressed and out on the floor.”
The coach turned away, but Josh spoke up.
Coach McKinley turned to look at him. “Yes?”
“Coach, I want to say, well, I’ve never had a gym teacher who has ever taken the time to talk to me like that, make me feel at ease and welcome. I really appreciate you doing that. Thanks.”
----  ----
After school, Josh was ready to bubble over, but the bike ride home made him hold it in a little longer. It was difficult to talk and ride. The traffic was heavy enough to make noise a problem, and they needed to ride single file to be safe.
They put their bikes in the garage, and Josh began talking before they were even in the house.
“Bryan, it was incredible. I went the whole day and wasn’t picked on once. Not once! No one teased me for blushing or not being able to speak very well when meeting people. The gym teacher is so nice. Your friends at lunch welcomed me like I was one of them. I helped Frank in history and didn’t get in trouble or anything. I even answered a question there and no one said anything to me about being a brown-nose ass kisser after class. Eric is really nice. So is Frank. I’ve never had a day at school like that before. Never! I realized, riding home, I went the entire day without worrying about being beaten up. That’s amazing.”
Bryan smiled, watching and listening to Josh gush. And he wasn’t only gushing. He was moving around the kitchen, unable to stand still. His body language was emphasizing the joy he was trying to express.
Bryan was happy. He’d thought that getting Josh transferred to Taft would be a good thing, but didn’t know exactly how it would work out. Then, the previous night, seeing Josh’s fears, he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing. Now he knew he’d made the right decision. And that made him feel good. He really liked Josh. Maybe he was paying him back just a little for rescuing him. He really hoped so.
“Josh, calm down a little. Hey, why don’t we get something to drink and then go out and practice some more b-ball. I think you’ve got some energy to burn off, and more practice can’t hurt anything.”
“Okay. We’ve got to change first.”
They changed, made a quick snack and ate it, then headed outside. Bryan showed Josh how to change hands when dribbling, going back and forth between the left and right, and Josh worked on it for a while. Then Bryan showed him the proper form for dribbling to the basket and shooting lay-ups. They worked on that till Josh had the footwork down and was feeling comfortable.
“Okay, I think you’re ready. Let’s play a little one on one,” Bryan suggested. Josh had just made four consecutive lay-ups without missing.
“Well, it just means you against me in a game. Usually you have more people playing, and you describe the game by the number on each team, like three on three, or four on five, something like that.”
“Oh. I’d heard those terms and never knew exactly what they meant. I’ve never done any athletic stuff before.”
“Well, you should. You’re not uncoordinated and you’ve picked up the basics of basketball pretty quickly. There’s a lot more, defense and rebounding and passing and setting picks and all kinds of stuff, but just to play around in the driveway you don’t have to know all that, or if you want to, you can pick it up. And in fact, playing one on one is an excellent way to find out what works on defense against one man and what doesn’t. Here, I’ll take the ball out first. The game is to ten. That’s ten baskets, not points. Mostly that’s the way you play games like this, by the number of baskets, not the actual score.”
Bryan took the ball and walked to the center of their playing area, away from the basket. Josh stood still under the basket.
“Okay, Josh, your job is to stop me from making the basket. You’re defending. You can’t do it from over there. You need to come closer to stop me from dribbling to the basket.”
Josh walked over and stood in front of Bryan. Bryan bounced the ball to him. Josh caught it, a puzzled look on his face.
“What did you do that for?”
“It’s polite to give the ball to your opponent each time. When he throws it back to you, he’s indicating he’s ready to play. If you’re ready, just bounce it back to me.”
Josh grinned and bounced the ball back. Bryan took two dribbles to his right, then crossed the dribble to his left hand. Josh had overcompensated to stop Bryan moving right, and Bryan had a clear lane to the basket. He dribbled in and scored.
“Frequently this game is played as winner’s outs. That means when you make a basket, you take the ball out again. It’ll be better for now if we play loser’s outs. Whoever makes a basket then has to go on defense.” He bounced the ball to Josh and said, “Your turn.”
They played for almost an hour. Bryan stopped occasionally and explained how Josh could improve his defense, why his position was wrong and how to do it right, how to exploit poor defense played by his opponent, how to fake, and spent a lot of time explaining what a foul was, both offensive and defensive. Josh soaked up the information like a sponge. He was learning that sports aren’t all rough and tumble and knocking into people. There was a thinking element involved, and he could quickly see that in basketball, thinking was an important part of the game.
Bryan was finally getting tired, so told Josh, “Okay, your ball. Next basket wins.”
Josh took the ball, bounced it to Bryan who bounced it back. Then Josh took off on a drive for the basket, favoring his right hand as he usually did. Bryan overplayed him to that side, and as they neared the basket, Josh crossed over his dribble to his left hand. As Bryan frantically slid to his right to cover, Josh crossed back to his right hand and went up for the lay-up, laughing as he did so.
Bryan couldn’t stop the shot. He’d been faked out. Instead, as Josh was going up for the shot, Bryan grabbed him around the waist.
“Hey! Foul! You can’t do that!”
“Who says? The rule is, on the game winning shot, the defensive man has one grab. That’s the rule. That and that it’s now my ball out.”
“That’s not the rule! You’re making that up!”
“Am not! My ball!”
Josh looked at Bryan and saw the smile in his eyes even as he continued to argue. Josh was holding the ball, standing on the driveway near the basket where Bryan had grabbed him. He suddenly turned and shot at the basket, and as he was next to it, made the shot.
“My game. I win!” he announced triumphantly.
“What! You can’t do that. We were talking.”
“Nope. The rule is, if after a discussion of the rules, when the discussion doesn’t end in agreement, the person with the ball has one shot from where he’s standing. I took it and made it, so I win, fair and square.”
“What are you talking about? That’s no rule! You just made that up!”
“I know! Just like you did!”
Bryan looked at him, then said, “You’re going to get it, you know!” and charged at Josh.
Josh took one look, screamed and took off running. Bryan ran after him, caught him when they were in the middle of the back lawn and tackled him. Josh quickly twisted and a second later was on top of Bryan. Bryan started laughing and rolled over. They ended up wrestling and rolling all over the small back yard, both growling fiercely and laughing at the same time.
Bryan was slightly larger than Josh and a little stronger as well. He realized quite soon he could dominate Josh if he tried. He didn’t. He let Josh take the upper hand and ended up being almost exclusively on the defensive.
After about five minutes, Josh was on top, his hands on Bryan’s wrists, holding them flat to the ground. In this position, his body was flat against Bryan’s. Only his upper torso was raised off Bryan’s. Their faces were only a bit more than a foot apart.
Josh had a huge grin on his face, which Bryan couldn’t help but respond to. The boys grinned at each other, their eyes locked on each other’s. Gradually, Josh’s grin diminished. Then, he was simply staring into Bryan’s face. He rolled off, and both boys were lying next to each other on their backs. Their upper arms were still in contact.
“Bryan?” Josh was still breathing hard, the result of their exertion.
“Thanks for what?”
“This was one of the best days I can remember. And I just realized. It’s all because of you. Everything. I got away from Kennedy; I got into Taft, because you made it happen. I’ve met some people who might even become friends, and you made sure I was introduced to them. I’m discovering, after you took the time to help me, that I’m not a complete spazz at basketball. I met people today without completely falling apart, and I could do that only because of the confidence you gave me. And maybe, most of all, thanks for liking me. I’ve never had a friend like you. I couldn’t even dream it. Thanks.”
Bryan didn’t say anything. The silence stretched out. Finally, Bryan sat up. Josh looked up at him, not moving himself. Bryan twisted around and looked down at him.
“Josh, I need to finish my story for you. Let’s go upstairs.”
Josh was still in an ebullient mood, but he recognized Bryan’s attitude had changed, had become more serious. He stood up and brushed himself off, then followed as Bryan walked inside.
After Josh snared a couple of Cokes from the refrigerator, they climbed the stairs to Josh’s bedroom, and without a word Bryan got on the bed in the same position he’d been in the last time he’d done this, his back against the headboard. Josh got up on the bed beside him. He could see that Bryan was no longer light-hearted. He didn’t know why, or why his mood had so quickly changed from playful to downcast, if that’s what it was, but he wanted to help. Right now, just listening to whatever Bryan had to say was all he knew how to do. He hoped it would be enough.
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