What happens when the school’s best runner on the cross-country team
is confronted with a younger kid who’s even better?
I ran through the woods, breathing easily, keeping up a steady, moderately fast pace. I’d only gone a mile and a half so far. Still a long way to go. Legs feeling fine. The path was clear in front of me. I knew it like the rooms in my own house; it was that familiar. I’d been running it for years now. My next school year, starting in only a couple of weeks. I’d be a junior. It would be my third year on the cross-country team. The huge change was that I’d be the captain. That would be way different. I was supposed to lead, to inspire the rest, instruct the newcomers, take them under my wing and make sure they fit in well with the rest. And do nothing to upset the seniors. That should be okay: they’d be part of the group that had voted me into this position at the end of last year’s season. It would have made more sense for one of them to be captain, but both of them were out for cross country only because it kept them in shape for their real interest: lacrosse. Cross country was a fall sport, lacrosse a spring one. They weren’t serious cross-country runners, and neither had wanted the captaincy.
I, along with the coach, would be responsible for creating the culture of the team. I’d never have thought that I’d be in this position when I’d been a freshman; I’d been typical of the breed then, unsure of myself, a little scared maybe; my major ambition had been just to fit in and survive. Me, a team captain? Not in a million years.
When I’d been a freshman, hazing had still been part of high school athletics here in Bishop. Many freshmen joining teams had had to put up with it. I hadn’t, but many had. We didn’t do that anymore. Hazing had ended that year; the cross-country coach and principal were both fired in the middle of the year, and a couple of boys, seniors, were expelled. I wasn’t sure but thought they’d both spent some time in a youth facility because of what they’d done. I’d lost track of them, as you do in high school. Once kids are no longer there, they’re easily forgotten. It’s amazing how quickly that happens.
At the time, I’d sure been happy to see those guys gone. I’d wanted no part of the hazing; there were rumors it had had a strong sexual component, not a titillating one but an unpleasant one, one of domination. I’d been as unsettled with my own sexuality then as I had of most other things. I knew if they’d gone after me, I’d have quit the team immediately, and I loved running and would have hated not being part of it at school.
But they’d picked on two other freshmen—missing me by the luck of the draw, I guess—gotten expelled, and it had all been hushed up as much as possible. One of those boys had a father who had been a big deal in town and had been able to keep most of the scandalous, obscene parts out of the papers. That whole family was gone now, moved away. Neither of those abused freshmen was still on the team. They’d dropped out of the school and, like their abusers, were no longer part of our consciousness.
A lot of good had come out of that incident, however. None of the athletic teams in school had hazing now. A few had new coaches.
] 0 [
I was keeping an even pace. It was nearing the end of summer but still plenty warm. The trees were laden with green lees, wearing them defiantly, unconcerned with the upcoming fall and the changes that would bring. I loved these woods and this trail I ran so often, loved how scenic it was in the summer. It was a little cooler here than out in the open—not a lot but enough that the difference was noticeable—where I could enjoy the scenery and smells and atmosphere. Running in the woods was always invigorating.
I was wearing almost nothing. Running shoes with ankle socks. Brief running shorts. Nothing else. The day was plenty warm enough, high 80’s with as elevated a humidity reading as we ever got here. I was covered in sweat. That felt good. Made me feel lubricated. Most runners I knew liked cooler temps, even cold. I didn’t mind it warm.
I was carrying a water bottle and would take a swig now and then. I didn’t stop. I only stopped when I came to my halfway spot, the 4-mile marker. That was well past the distance we ran in school meets; those were 5K—or 3.1 miles—events for school kids. Training, I ran eight miles four times a week. Twelve miles twice a week. One day of no running. That was my schedule and it worked just fine for me.
The trail meandered through maple and oak, ash and hickory, the occasional pine and locust trees. Several other kinds as well. There were places where the trees were crowded enough that I couldn’t see very far into the woods and other places where the view opened up some.
What I didn’t see, no matter where the trail led, was another human. I assumed other cross-country runners trained here as well as I did, but I rarely saw any of them and never on a hot day. Maybe that was something I should encourage with my teammates: more training runs and on hot days as well as mild.
I knew I was a more dedicated runner than most guys. I loved running. Actually, I loved running alone. It gave me a sense of freedom I didn’t feel when with a group of guys. Maybe the fact I was thinking I was gay was part of that feeling, but I didn’t really believe that. I think it was just that I was more an introvert than most teenagers and running alone felt right for me.
Yeah, an introvert—and team captain. Well, we’d see how that played out. We’d see. I’d never been in a position to tell anyone what to do, to be the boss. It wouldn’t be easy for me. Trial and error, I guessed.
Coach had asked me when the team had voted me captain for this year at the end of last year if I wanted the job. He knew me well, better than any of my teammates, in fact. He was the only one at school who knew I was probably gay. I was pretty sure I was, but as I’d never done anything with anyone, how could I be sure? If I was, it was okay with me. I liked who I was, but I also liked no one else knowing. No muss or fuss. No questions, no snide remarks, no jokes. No need to be defensive. The locker room was like most in high school, full of anti-gay remarks, boys posturing, showing how macho they were by making fun of sissy gay boys. Some of that was boys covering their own anxieties, their own insecurities. The remarks weren’t pointed at me or softened because I was there. I didn’t know how it would have been had they known about me. I was happy not finding out.
From what I’d read, many boys in their early and middle teens, even some in their late teens, were uncertain. Sex was a wide vista stretching out into an unknown future, a fog-shrouded, uncertain panorama for many of them. Making remarks to show how straight they were was a sham for some of them. Didn’t mean anything. Only that they were trying to fit in. Lots of high school boys are trying to fit in.
I’d told the coach I was gay after I’d gotten to know him and become close with him. I lived with just my mom, so maybe I was looking for a father figure. If so, it was an unconscious urge. I wasn’t aware of the need. But coach Dryer was so, so different from Coach Tellery, the one who’d allowed the hazing and even encouraged it to a degree. I’d overheard Tellery once telling a guy who’d been brave enough to complain to him about hazing that it made men out of boys and brought the team closer together. That guy had quit, and the coach told us it was good riddance—if someone couldn’t withstand a little harmless fun, he’d never have lasted through tough training runs and exercises. And so we’d lost a runner who would have helped the team. And a nice guy at that.
If having something rammed up your backside while others were holding you down, and still others were laughing at you was harmless fun, then I’d certainly hate to see what serious physical and sexual abuse was.
I passed the 3-mile marker, still going strong, maintaining my pace, swinging my arms, feeling the sweat running off me. I took in a little more water. Felt myself being one with the world. Running was another word for joy.
Coach Dryer always had time for us, and he wasn’t sarcastic, as Tellery had been. Dryer pushed us but was sensitive to how we all were. If you needed a breather, he’d let you sit out till you were okay again. Tellery liked us to run sprints till some of us would collapse. Then he’d insult those who lay on the grass, maybe heaving their guts out. Dryer never did anything like that.
He liked me. When I was a freshman and didn’t know much of anything, I did sense his approval right from the start. He watched me a lot. Well, he watched all of us when he took over the team, but I had the feeling he watched me more than the others. After working with us for a month, he told us as a group that he hoped we all came back and joined the team next year. He said he’d speak with each of us individually at that time, talking to us about what he expected, about what we needed to work on by ourselves, and to just get to know us better.
This was late in my freshman year. Right after all the hazing trouble. Right after Tellery had become a despised figure who was no longer our concern. Our team meets with other schools were summarily cancelled. This was the result of some other hazing incidents which had come to light during the school’s investigation, and it was learned that the cross-country team was only one of the teams where abuses had occurred. Tellery was fired, the season terminated; Dryer was named the new coach for next year. In the time left that first year, he was burdened with assembling a new team. He posted a signup sheet and said it would stay up past the beginning of the next school year, my sophomore year. Anyone that signed up made the team. No cuts; that was his policy. But only the ones doing best in intra-team competitions during training would have their times count in our competitions. That seemed fair, better than Tellery’s system of his favorites all running in meets even if that meant faster runners sitting out. Tellery let all his seniors run no matter how good they were. We almost never won a single meet. We could have been more competitive if Tellery had just used some common sense.
It was just a couple of the seniors who’d done the hazing. And those two got to compete even though there were better runners sitting out. I didn’t get it. Didn’t make sense.
Anyway, when Dryer had me in for my talk at the beginning of my sophomore year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a soph, a bit wiser, a year older than when I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, and he’d only seen me training with the others. He knew nothing about me other than how I looked working training runs.
“Hi, Xander,” he said. He was the exact opposite of Tellery. Dryer was warm and congenial and empathetic, one of those guys who’s easy to like and become friends with, as much as a kid can be friends with an adult. “Have a seat.”
I sat down, a little nervous being one on one with an adult I didn’t really know, but he was so accepting, so easygoing, that even someone as reticent and cautious as I was felt no intimidation from him at all.
“I’ve been watching you. Well, all of you guys,” he said with a chuckle, “but you a lot. You’re aware, aren’t you, that you’re our best runner?”
“Who, me?” I wasn’t! “You must have me confused with someone else. Devin, maybe. He’s a junior and pretty good.”
“Yeah, he is. We might have a good team this year. A couple of the freshmen have real promise, too. But our lead runner, the one who’ll start in the front row? The one capable of turning in the best times? That’s you.”
I didn’t say anything. My eyes might have opened a little wider was all. I didn’t know how to respond, and my default position in most things was silence.
He grinned and got out of his chair, moving to the front of his desk, sitting on the edge of it. Closer to me. “Why am I not surprised?” he asked.
“As I said, I’ve been watching. I try to figure out what makes kids tick. You I’ve watched closely because you’re not as easy to read as the rest of them are. You don’t really join in with the others. You stay with them, but on the edges of the group. You rarely say anything. You’re entirely self-effacing. It’s guys like you I watch closely because there can be lots of reasons for how you behave, most of them innocuous and unconscious, but some not so much. For example, kids who are mistreated at home often draw into themselves, so I look for that. I don’t see that with you, however. With you, I’ve come to think that it’s just that you’re not real comfortable in a crowd. Probably a bit introverted. You don’t really act shy, but, well, you’re more comfortable on the outside looking in, participating when necessary but not when it isn’t. That’s the way I’d put it. You like watching and figuring things out more than pitching in.”
He paused to let me argue or agree or something. I stayed still.
He nodded, like he was expecting that response. “And I watch you run. You’re entirely graceful, running. Elegant. Perfect form, perfect stride. All that uncertainty, that cautious vibe I get when you’re standing still is gone.”
He smiled at me, a smile encouraging me to respond, but I didn’t have anything to say. I remained silent.
“I also see you hanging back in training,” he continued when I didn’t speak. “You let someone else lead. You let someone else be the first runner back. And you’re never as exhausted as they are. You, Xander, are our best runner, even if you don’t want any of the others to know. You don’t want the limelight. You want to be inconspicuous.”
I was getting antsy, and he could see it because he immediately backed off, moving from the front of the desk to behind it again. “Hey, what you are, how you are, that’s fine. Great, even. I wish I had ten of you. I’m only saying this so you’ll know I know, and it’s okay with me. I hope you’ll come out of your shell a little. I hope you’ll gain some self-confidence this year. I hope you’ll run to your capacity, too. But if not, if you’d rather finish second or third, you have my blessing. I won’t say a word about it to anyone. I’m so happy you came out for the team. I want you to feel as safe and free and comfortable here as possible.”
“Really?” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t actually believe he could see through me so thoroughly, but, too, I was astounded that it was okay with him if I didn’t try to win. Coaches want to win! If they don’t embody a fully functional competitive spirit, why would they ever want to be a coach? They do it because they like to win. They love having the prestige of being a winning coach. They love competition, and winning is the crown jewel of competition.
“Really,” he responded. “You’re in high school. This is the hardest time of your life so far, I’d bet a dollar on that, and kids have enough struggles with grades and social pressures and parents and their own wants and desires and worries about what comes next for them. Sports in high school should provide relief from all that stress. Giving kids more pressure and worries in an elective sport doesn’t make sense to me. I think this should be a recreation for you, not something else to create anxiety and ulcers.”
He stopped to grin. “Sure, I’d like to win our meets. But I see you guys as people first, and allowing you to breathe comes before winning. I want everyone on the team to be happy, to see this as a happy adventure, a fun activity. I don’t care if you don’t give your all for the Gipper. Does that translate?”
He laughed. He had the sort of laugh that made you want to join in.
“For you,” he continued, moving past that, “well, I’d like this to be a safe haven for you from whatever pressures you feel in your life. I like what I see from you. I think you’d be happier if you blossomed a bit, weren’t quite so closed off, but that’s up to you, and you have time to get there. I just want you to know that with me, it’s okay for you to set the pace with both your training and personal growth. I just want you to know I’m here, I like what I’ve seen of you, how you handle yourself, and I want you to know I’m available if you want to come talk to me about any and everything you might like to open up about. If you ever need an empathetic ear, I’m here.”
He paused then, his eyes still on mine, and there was no doubting his sincerity when he continued. “I’d like to get to know you better. I think there’s a whole lot more to Xander Chesterson than he lets anyone know. I think he’s a person it would be interesting getting to know.”
He stopped talking for a moment then but didn’t take his eyes off me. When he spoke again, some of the vibrancy in his voice was diluted. “Xander, I’m not just a cross-country coach. I’m a teacher who likes working with students, loves helping them through this difficult part of their lives. I get much more pleasure doing that than getting a win in some meaningless match against another school. That’s why I’m here. Some kids take advantage of that; some don’t. I think you might be one that would, should you choose to. My door will always be open to you.”
That was my talk with Coach Dryer. The first one. I didn’t have anyone to really discuss my feelings with, and a kid of 15, eventually going on 16, needs that. He needs an outlet for everything churning around in his head. I did have friends, but not the type of really close ones a kid can let loose with and confide in. After a few hesitant first tries, I became a regular visitor to Coach’s office.
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