I am a very sentimental person, and my children often tease me good-naturedly about how easily I can be moved to tears. Honestly, it doesn’t take much, which is why I surprised even myself earlier this year when my old high school was torn down. I passed by the scene during various stages of its demolition but remained dry-eyed and unmoved.
My high school years were complicated and difficult ones both at home and at school. Of course, not all of the memories are painful – far from it. I had good friends, and we shared some experiences I still treasure; but, there was also, throughout that awkward stage of life, an undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty with which I contended in private. I’m guessing that some who read this essay will understand and relate more so than others.
Thinking back, ninth grade was a particularly intimidating experience. For the previous eight years, I had been in school with the same group of students. We’d grown up together; and, though there were certainly cliques in our Catholic school, they weren’t of the ferocious variety. So, an insecure person like me could still feel some sense of belonging, even among the cooler kids. In ninth grade, however, the playing field changed altogether.
One morning, a few years back, I was praying and asking God for the grace to know God’s presence in my life. Quite unexpectedly, a flood of familiar human faces came to mind, including some I’d not thought about for years. And, I found myself basking in memories of God’s mediated love.
I thought of relatives, friends, teachers, and role models who had made a real difference in my life… people like my little league manager, Mr. Chiulli, who was determined to teach me not to bail out of the batter’s box when a pitch came inside. This good and dignified man actually sprawled face-down in the dirt behind me to hold my ankles in place during batting practice. (His noble plan back-fired, however, when I was hit by a pitch because I couldn’t move my ankles to get out of the way.)
That morning in prayer, I also thought of Domenic Marino…
My former parochial school companions each handled the transition to public high school in his/her own way. In our new social environment, many remained my steady friends while others, perhaps under the weight of peer pressure, strategically distanced themselves. A handful started passing right by me in the halls as if I’d become invisible over the summer. Honestly, that hurt.
One of my old classmates, Domenic, seemed to handle the change with particular grace. Handsome, confident, charismatic, and blessed with great athleticism, he would soon become the quarterback of the high school football team and a leader among his/our peers.
Gym class strikes fear in the hearts of many high school students. Slow to mature physically, I found gym a particular trial. If we were playing softball or whiffle ball, I could hold my own because I was a pretty good hitter. (Thank you, Mr. Chiulli!) Otherwise though, all bets were off.
At the top of the hierarchy of horrors was the dreaded obstacle course. Diabolically conceived, the obstacle course included an array of activities – e.g., climbing a rope to the ceiling of the gym, sinking a basketball shot, and maneuvering through various gymnastics apparatus – designed to showcase athletic ineptitude. That each student was expected to perform this feat alone (in front of everyone) and in a race against the clock only compounded the potential shame.
Just a notch below the obstacle course, for me at least, was any activity related to track and field, especially a long footrace. I was a very fast runner but only for short distances. I have asthma that was rather severe in my younger days; consequently, any race beyond a 50-yard dash would quickly leave me gasping for breath at the back of the pack.
One day, my ninth grade gym teacher announced that class would be held that day on the track around the perimeter of the football field. My heart sank. We’d be racing in small groups, running a complete lap around the track. If memory serves, I believe the distance was (roughly) 350 yards.
When my name was called, I reluctantly took my place in one of the lanes. One of those running with me – I’ll call him Bill – was among the more popular students in our class. Although a decent athlete, the length of the race would prove a challenge for him as well since he was rather stockily built.
When the gym teacher yelled “Go,” I held my own only for a few seconds. Then, decidedly short of breath, I began to lag behind. Bill did too.
The race seemed interminable. By the halfway point, my lungs were burning and my legs felt like lead. I seriously considered stopping but feared the reaction from the teacher… and my peers. Bill was struggling too; but, we both kept going.
At one point, after the others in the race had completed the course, I began to hear our classmates both laughing and hollering their support for Bill. In retrospect, that was perhaps my most conspicuously lonely experience in high school.
As we lumbered neck-and-neck around the final turn, one lone, loud voice suddenly called out support for me. “You can beat him, Steve! Come on! You can beat him!” I looked up and saw Domenic cheering me on from the sidelines. His encouragement meant more to me than I can express.
No, I didn’t win the race, but I did finish just a few steps ahead of Bill. It was my Rocky moment. Domenic smiled and nodded.
Various labels – geek, nerd, or misfit – might aptly be used to describe my high school persona. One important person, however, used different words – two simple words.
Once, I met Domenic in the hallway between classes. As we walked together, a student I didn’t know, who was going in the opposite direction, asked him in a tone intended to diminish me, “Hey, Domenic, who’s that you’re walking with?” Without hesitation, he decisively replied, “My friend!”
I haven’t seen Domenic in many years. And, he may have no memory of his gestures of kindness and support that meant so much to me at that vulnerable time of life; but, he will always live in my mind and heart as an instrument of God’s love… as one of my heroes… and, as my friend.
We meet so many good people in our day-to-day lives, often never knowing if their lungs are burning, their legs are heavy, and they’re questioning whether or not they’ll finish the race.
What an awesome opportunity it is to be a friend!
Beautifully written. Something we can all identify with.
Thank you, Margaret! I hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving!
Steve, I happy you can be called, “My Friend”.
Likewise, Jerry! Blessings to you, Marie, and all your loved ones!
This is awesome, we all have a friend like this. Glad to call you mine. Have a happy thanksgiving to you and your family
Thank you, Sheryl. And the same to you and yours.
I wonder is anyone ever got through High School without being scared in one way or another.
I hope each one would also have a favorite memory of feeling accepted.
I do believe at my present age of 75 that I’d fare much better if I were to go through High School.
Thanks for sharing your difficulty and your joy.
PS How’s that book of yours coming along?
I would be so happy to own an autographed copy.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, my friend.
It is always a joy to hear from you, my dear friend. Thank you for your consistent support and encouragement. It means more to me than you know. I hope you and your beautiful family enjoy a truly blessed Thanksgiving… (and, I hope Gerpie doesn’t eat too much).
Regarding “my book,” that sounds like a retirement project to me. Remind me in ten years. 😉
Wishing you God’s own peace,
Well, You have brought tears to my eyes, as I remember how cruel children were, and you wonder, if they all grew up to be cruel parents, to perpetuate the bullying for generations to come. I have seen bullying in the work place, harassment, discrimination….these were the cruel kids. Yet, they react with great anger, if anything happens to their children .
Oh, how I worry for our children, and grandchildren, I have 4 grandsons.
I have a few Great memories, from high school , When I got the MVP trophy for the big Savio Hockey Game against E B high, or the game puck, when we beat Pope John HS, big rivalry game…..My Dad was proud. …. my team mates, cheered me….I was offered 2 full scholarships to colleges to play hockey….. but I have many more memories of rejection.
The great blessing, was that some kids , like us, grew up to be aware of these things, and are now able to bring awareness of these things, and God can use our hearts, softened by these experiences, to help others we come in contact with.
Thank – you Steven for sharing, Frank
Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt response. I’m grateful that God has used the difficulties in your life to tenderize your heart. You are a very caring man, and your gentle goodness blesses many people, including your family members.
I hope that you and your loved ones have a truly glorious Thanksgiving… and that you and I will catch up soon over coffee and/or lunch.
Wishing you God’s own peace,
So wonderful, Steve, to look into your soul!! We can all relate to those difficult high school memories…you’re the best:)
Thank you, Corinne! I hope that your Thanksgiving will be spent surrounded by those you love, who also love you so dearly.
Blessings always, my friend!
I loved reading your story Steve. Thank you. A little kindness goes a long way….! Happy Thanksgiving
Indeed it does, Tricia. And, kindness remains in the memory. Ninth grade, for me, was in 1971/1972. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
A rather belated response to your post. I wonder if anyone really enjoyed high school? Even the so-called popular kids? I was among the nerds, so I don’t know.
It is truly amazing though how a simple act of kindness can really make someone’s day. We may forget that small act, but the person on the receiving end, may cherish that moment. Thanks for that reminder.
Nancy, I’m guessing that you’ve touched a lot of people with simple acts of kindness, including via your thoughtful blog posts. Thank you!
Steve, you captured so much with such eloquence and vulnerability, and with such depth of meaning, in this short story. You brought tears to my eyes and flooded my soul with light and goodness. What a gift you are to us, Steve. What a blessing you cotinue to be in my life personally. What a friend!
Kevin, thank you for your kind words. I’m grateful that this short piece had such meaning for you, and I suspect the meaning you found here may be related to your noble anti-bullying message/work. It is a great privilege to call you “my friend!” God’s blessings! – Steve
How did you pull off completion let alone the beating of the popular kid?
I hope you see Domenic and can tell him your story.
Interesting that you became a long distance walker. Way to go!!
Mary, I did contact Domenic shortly after I originally posted the essay. It was great to reconnect after so many years. He told me that he never knew how much his kind gestures had meant to me. From my perspective, he was just being his usual kind self back in the day. Blessings, dear friend!