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 440 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!