High school is part wonderful, part wrenching for most everyone.
Along the way, for the lucky ones, personal growth occurs.
I check my watch, then leave the art wing. On the way back, I pass that trophy case again, and can’t help but look at the trophy from my sophomore year. Football was only part of the year, and if I want to be honest, not the most important part. School work, maturing, learning how to handle myself, all those were more important. Football was more fun, though.
We had a great team my sophomore year, and I didn’t have as much of a problem with Coach T. We’d won the state championship the year before, and I think that mellowed him a little. He still put winning above humanity, in my opinion, but some coaches are like that. At least he wasn’t calling me in for private meetings as much. I think he’d learned I was as stubborn as he was and couldn’t really be intimidated or pushed around.
We had a great year, going undefeated in our conference. As a sophomore I was steadier, less antsy, and performed better. There was only one game that year that was memorable. It was against St. Matthew’s, a Catholic school that traditionally had a pretty good football team. This year, they were our chief rival for the conference title and a pathway to State. When we met them we were both undefeated with only two games left.
Their team seemed angry, and they were playing very rough. Their coach was roaming the sidelines yelling at everyone. I was surprised there was no foam around his lips, as red and incensed as he was. There should have been quite a few flags thrown for how their players were behaving in the game, but the refs seemed to be letting lots of stuff go. The more they allowed, the dirtier their team played, and tempers on our side began getting short.
Late in the second quarter, I floated a long pass to Jake, who had a step on his man. He caught it, got tackled, and then another defender came over and dove hard on top of him as he lay on the ground. The hit was well after the play was over. The ref just looked at the three of them lying on the ground and did nothing.
I didn’t do nothing. I was mad as hell. At both the refs and the other team. I ran down the field to where Jake was lying, and when I got there the man who committed the late hit was already on his feet. He was telling Jake, who was just starting to get up, the wind having been knocked out of him, to look forward to more of that all game long.
I grabbed the guy by his shoulder pads, yanked him in front of me and got in his face. “You asshole. Do that again you’re dead meat! You got that?”
Well, maybe I said just a bit more, referencing his heritage and the pursuits his mother enjoyed that had resulted in his unfortunate birth; my words weren’t nice and the sentiments worse and they don’t need to be written down. Anyway, by then everyone was running toward us, the crowd was on its feet hollering, and the guy took a swing at me.
It’s not smart to swing at a guy wearing a helmet. He hit me hard on the side of my helmet. Then he screamed. He’d broken his hand.
The ref threw a flag. I got called, 15 yards for instigation. I didn’t know there was a penalty for that. Maybe the ref made it up. I was mad enough to start wondering if maybe the ref was a Catholic. Anyway, the guy was out of the game, and in fact out for the rest of the season.
Coach T got on me in the locker room a few minutes later for losing my temper and said I was lucky I wasn’t tossed, and what would have happened to the team then and to our season and chance for State? He was pissed. I felt bad for the guy who broke his hand. But not all that bad.
Anyway, we won that game, went on to State and won that, too. So we’d won two state championships. I had as many trophies as Clay had. He wasn’t the jealous type. He told me he was proud of me and to go on and win two more. Yeah, like that was expected now!
I leave the main hallway, walk down a side corridor and head for the stairs. I need to get downstairs. That’s where the locker room is—for the gym classes, the pool, and the wrestling rooms. It also was where the wood and metal shops were located as well as a few other rooms. On the way, I think about my junior year. That was the first year when I felt I really was growing up a little. Becoming just a little more mature. I still felt very much a kid, but almost in spite of myself, I was maturing.
I had a new class that year, one I found I really enjoyed: Creative Writing. The teacher, Mr. Jamison, was a young guy, full of enthusiasm, and I liked him. He would have us write various things on topics he chose, but with variations. Like he’d have us read something by some author and then write a story in that writer’s style. Or he’d give us a topic such as to write about an argument two people are having that results in reconciliation.
I found I loved writing, and his prompts helped get me to write about things I’d never have tried without his suggestions. He liked my writing, too, and I mostly got high marks.
I had a problem with something he asked us to do, however. He wanted us to write a story that was interesting and involving but ended with the main issue unresolved. Ambiguous, perhaps, but left for the reader to finish in his head any way he wished. He said it didn’t need to be too deep or long. He assigned it on a Friday and said to turn it in Monday. I gave it some thought, and came up with what I thought was a really good plot idea:
A Catholic boy named Ryan develops a crush on a boy he sees at school. He doesn’t really know the boy, but watches him constantly. But he knows his thoughts are sinful, and being a good Catholic boy, he’s worried. He can’t talk to his parents about it. They’d come unglued as neither is accepting of homosexuality. He doesn’t know if he is gay, but does know he is crushing hard on this other boy.
So Ryan does what he feels he must do: he goes to his priest and tells him what he’s been feeling and asks for guidance. The priest is an older man who exudes warmth and kindness. He’s well-liked in the parish. He listens to Ryan, and then gently tells him that the church condemns homosexuality, but a crush at his age doesn’t mean he’s gay. Crushes are a normal part of adolescence. But, as this one is worrying Ryan, his advice would be to get busy with other things. Join an athletic activity at school. Maybe get a job after school. Find a hobby. Join the church’s youth group. There he’d meet other kids his age, Catholic kids, and that would take his mind off the other boy. He should try to avoid looking at him and thinking about him as much as he could.
He told Ryan if the feelings persisted when he was older, to come talk to him again.
Ryan went home and decided to try to take the priest’s advice. He wasn’t a bit athletic and hated team sports, but thought he might try out for the swimming team. Of course, that meant being around a bunch of boys wearing almost nothing, so he wasn’t sure that was a good idea. His mother wouldn’t let him get a job after school, saying he should use that time for friends and studying. As for a hobby, he liked playing video games, but his mother strictly limited the times he could do that.
This left the Catholic youth group. Ryan knew about that because his mother had tried on many occasions to get him involved. The problem was, he knew a bunch of those kids, and they were jerks. Some were overly pious, some were pretentious, and some were bullies. But he wasn’t having much luck not looking at Daniel, the boy he had the crush on, and so, out of desperation, he decided to go to the next youth group meeting.
He wasn’t sure why, but he spent extra time getting ready, picking out something nice but not too nice, casual but just a bit dressy, and spending way too much time getting his hair just the way he wanted it. He thought about why he was doing this and decided he was being silly. He didn’t want any of these kids to think he was attractive. It was just the reverse, and mostly, he didn’t want to be noticed. So after all that time, he just put on regular school clothes, jeans and a tee shirt, said screw it and messed up his hair to where it looked like it always did, then said goodbye to his mom, got on his bike and rode to the church. He went in through the basement door and into the room where the meetings were held.
There were both boys and girls there, probably about forty of them; the ages varied from about 12 to 16. Hoping not to be noticed, he walked along the wall to the back of the room, feeling he’d be inconspicuous there.
At the back of the room, he had the advantage of being behind everyone and facing a bunch of backs. No eyes. He could stay by himself as long as he wished.
Then he realized he wasn’t alone. There was someone else hanging in the back, too. He turned to see who it was, and found himself face to face with Daniel. Daniel tells Ryan he’s never been here before; Ryan says he’d come just once before but not again till now. Daniel asks him why he’s here now and Ryan blushes and says the priest told him to come. Daniel says that’s funny because the priest told him to come as well. Ryan asks him why the priest said that, and Daniel, even more uncomfortable, blurts out that it was because he told the priest he liked a boy; then he looks into Ryan’s eyes. Ryan also blushes and says, “Me, too.” Then Daniel says, “You’re the boy I like.” And Ryan says, “Me, too. Well, me, too, you.”
They giggle at how that sounds and out of nervousness, and then Daniel shyly takes hold of Ryan’s hand. Ryan squeezes Daniels hand, then looks up and sees the priest standing in the doorway, an enigmatic look on his face.
We handed in our stories, and a couple of days later, we got them back. There was a big A on the front, along with a note saying, ‘please see me after class’.
When class was over, everyone left except three of us. Mr. Jamison told us our stories were the best in class and he wanted us to read them out loud in class, one a day till we were done. The other two students agreed and left, leaving me alone with Mr. Jamison.
“I can’t read this to the class,” I said.
“You can’t,” he said, wrinkling his brow. Why not?”
“I just can’t.”
His voice became persuasive. “Whit, it’s a great story, the best one we have. But reading it aloud is part of the assignment; the best three stories get read aloud. It’s an honor but also part of the class, part of the rest of the class learning how kids their age can write. It’s part of what we do here.”
“I understand,” I said, and my voice was a little harder. “The thing is, you didn’t explain any of that stuff, that the best stories would be read out loud. It’s hardly fair to tell us that now. I would have written an entirely different story, knowing that.”
I grimaced. I liked Mr. Jamison. He seemed to like me. So, I could probably tell him. “You might not understand, but the environment I live in, sort of a jock world during football season, isn’t very tolerant of lots of things. I’m not sure, it’s never discussed, but homosexuality isn’t something most jocks accept. I’m a leader on our team, and I don’t need to start a controversy by reading a story that is sympathetic to gay kids. You might say well, as leader, you’re in a position to change that atmosphere, but that isn’t who I am. I’m not going to be blazing trails. That story could affect a lot of things, even how I’m pictured, and I just won’t do that in the middle of the football season. I’m sorry. But, if you’d like, I’ll write a different story.”
He thought about that for a minute before answering. “You know, you do have a point. I didn’t mention the best stories would be read to the class. I meant to, but didn’t. So I’m hardly in a position to insist. I’ll tell you what, I’ll take you up on your offer. Take a couple days, or more if you need them. But Whit, you have to realize, your story really is a good one.”
I did it. I wrote a story about two girls.
Lynn was a pretty girl; Lisa was a plain one. They were best friends, very close best friends, from infants up through middle school. Then, in high school, Lynn took advantage of her looks and joined the popular girls. The group looked down on all the other girls, and Lynn on occasions would be part of a group that would disparage and sometimes bully girls that weren’t popular. There was an occasion when the group picked on Lisa with cutting remarks about her appearance and clothes. Lisa was hurt by this, which Lynn saw but never said anything about.
A new boy came to school, handsome and confident and he immediately became a target of the popular girls. Lynn, in particular, tried to get his attention. She managed to get him to ask her out and afterwards told everyone they were now a couple.
One day Lynn saw the boy speaking to Lisa at her locker, and grabbed his arm, pulling him away. She said some nasty things about Lisa, and that he’d ruin his rep by speaking to her. The boy pulled away from Lynn and asked Lisa if she’d like to go to the movies that weekend, with Lynn standing right there, overhearing. Lisa hesitated, undecided, looking back and forth at both Lynn and the boy.
That was the story. I left it to the reader to decide where loyalties lie, what Lisa will do, what’s important to her and why she’d choose what she did.
Mr. Jamison gave me a B on it and didn’t ask me to read it. That was fine with me. I felt I’d dodged a bullet. But he called me in after class and, when we were alone, said, “I don’t make a big deal out of this, but I’m gay. If you ever want to talk, I’m available. I know something about navigating the shoals of high school as a closeted gay teen.”
“I’m not gay,” I said.
“Oh, really? That story you wrote. I’ve never had a story like that, so empathetic about gay kids, from a straight high-school boy. Or about a priest who’d do what he did, putting his humanity ahead of outdated church teachings. I just assumed.”
“Which is why I didn’t want to read it to the class,” I said, and smiled.
I was still seeing Duncan. I liked the massages. The massage loosened up and relaxed all my muscles. It loosened up the rest of me as well.
Once, when he was working on me after the massage, he got his face very close to where his hands were working so magically. Then he got closer and I could feel his breath on me.
“What are you doing,” I asked, my voice sounding as constricted as it often did when I was in the state I was in.
“I was thinking that you might like—” he stopped, then opened his mouth and licked his lips. “Yeah?”
“No,” I said, even though the thought of what he was suggesting was something I couldn’t deny understanding.
“No?” he asked.
“No. That’s too gay. Finishing a massage is fine. Doing what you’re asking is going way over the line. Are you gay?”
“Of course I’m gay. Didn’t you figure that out already? Jesus!”
“I never really thought about it,” I said. “Doesn’t matter, though. Maybe that’s why you give such a great massage.” I grinned at him. He looked a little disappointed, but grinned back.
And finished his job.
Then there was one more time. It was the last massage he ever gave me. He was massaging me and I was still on my stomach. He was working on my legs, having finished with my torso and neck, and he was sort of leaning into me more than usual. Then he started on my buttocks. And I felt something. I raised my head and looked back, and he was nude and aroused. I’d felt it rubbing against my leg.
“What are you doing? Why are you naked?” I asked.
“I’m getting tired of having to wash oil out of all my clothes. I thought I’d try it this way. Works better, I think. You have a problem with it?”
I had to consider that.“I guess not. Go ahead.”
I lay back down, and he did as he usually did at this point: he got onto the massage table behind me, his knees on either side of my thighs, and began doing my lower back and butt. He spent some time doing it, and then I felt his breath on my back up around my shoulder blades. I also felt something else pressing against my butt.
I said, “Uh, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
“You want me to stop?”
“Uh, yeah, I do.”
“Okay,” he said, and got down off the table. “You can roll over now.”
I did, and he finished, as usual.
When we were done, he wanted to shower with me. I said it would be too crowded, which was true, and he again looked disappointed. When we were both dry and dressed, he said, “I want to do more than this. I want to do what gay guys do. I want us to do it to each other.”
“No,” I said. “You’re gay. I understand you want that. But you’ll have to find a gay boy, and that’s not me. Thanks, but I won’t be coming back.”
And I never did.
I had a disappointment my junior year. We were having another undefeated season. Somehow, each year we lost a crop of very good seniors, and they were replaced by very good sophomores. Well, there were new sophomores who’d joined the team, and some of them participated, but it was mostly the new juniors and seniors that played every year, so in effect the seniors were replaced by last year’s juniors, and on down the line. But the team as a whole remained very strong. Maybe Coach T had something to do with that. He demanded excellence, and it’s surprising what high-school kids can do when they’re asked to do more than is expected of them. With the right kind of kids, they meet the higher expectations.
So we were three weeks from going to state, and I got injured. It was early in the last game of our regular conference play. Our blocking had broken down and I was scrambling. Running was never my greatest strength. I was trying to get out of bounds and didn’t make it. Their linebacker wasn’t only big, he was fast, and he crashed into me just before I got to the sideline. It was a clean hit, but as I went down, my cleat got caught in the grass, and then I was under him with a severely sprained ankle. It was a bad sprain, and I was on crutches for two weeks, then walking with a cane and a heavy elastic bandage around it for another two.
I doubt I’d have been able to play in the championship game anyway, but it never became a possibility as we lost that last game and our first round playoff game. We were done for the year while I was still hobbling around on crutches.
I think it bothered other people more than it did me. Sure, I’d have liked to win another trophy. But things happen, and you make the best of them. I liked football for the competition, for the precision that was needed for plays to work, for the camaraderie of the team. If a trophy came our way, great. But it was the game itself I liked.
Summer came. I was now a rising senior. I continued my workouts at home, and playing catch with Jake. Beth kept on me, wanting us to go out together, and so we did. It was Lanny with Jake and Beth with me, even if I felt no romantic twinges with Beth. I had the feeling she’d have liked it if we were more of a couple but didn’t press the point. If she’d really wanted that, pressing the point is what she’d have done. She was not and never had been the quiet type.
Jake had an idea as the summer was coming to an end. He thought we should have a campout at the lake. He must have mentioned it to a couple other guys, too, because suddenly the idea seemed to grow legs. Somehow, it became a campout for the football team. A pre-season blast before conditioning drills began.
Then someone suggested we make it a skinny-dipping campout party. No one seemed to object. Not even girls who were going to come with their boyfriends.
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My thanks as usual for the work my editors put in pinching and punching this story into shape. A special word of thanks to Colin for supplying the artwork and supplementary material.