Note: Yes this title is a take on one of the best short stories of all time, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
The day after I broke the school record for wins by a softball pitcher, I asked my teammate and good friend Aimee, who did the school tv news in the morning, if she would please not make a big deal about my achievement the next morning on the announcements.
I was proud, don’t get me wrong, but I absolutely melted in the face of attention.
The next morning, when her piece of the news was complete, I was relieved that she had mentioned the highlights of the game without making a big deal about the record.
Then the camera panned to Andrew, a theatre major who was made for tv. Aimee hadn’t mentioned the record, but she gave Andrew full license to go on and on and on and on about it. He had a giant sign, maybe some streamers, and was shouting at the top of his lungs, Howard Cosell style.
I was mortified.
(Aimee is now a sports psychologist and director of player and team development for the New Jersey Devils, so presumably, she was doing her early work in exposure therapy).
As my classmates trained their attention on me, I opened up my book bag and stuck my head inside.
Yes, I really did this.
My reaction to attention, positive or negative, is visceral - my face turns crimson, I tug at my red hot ears; I can't make eye contact.
People get awkward just watching my awkwardness.
But hey, the good news with being 41 years old is that I'm past that stuff, right?
Two months ago, my coworker Judy brought in her microphone headset for me to try out during a team training class. My voice doesn’t carry well and as our classes have gotten bigger, even my best outside voice loses the battle to the blaring music and hum of conversations.
I knew I needed to at least try a microphone, but took one look at the headset in Judy's hands and was a teenager all over again, frantically looking for a book bag in which I could stick my head.
Judy turned the headset on and talked into the microphone.
“See?” she said, talking into it. “No big deal.”
Right, I thought. Right. Totally. I’m an adult. No big deal. Nope, this is fine, totally fine. I’m basically on stage everyday when I coach. Yup, totally got this.
She put the headset on me and I walked over to the class of 20 people waiting for me.
It's like I'd been dropped into a Wonder Years' episode.
I looked around for a moment before shaking my head and ripping off the microphone.
“Sorry,” I said to everyone as I tried to pull my ear off of my head. “You’ll just have to listen closer.”
I’m 41-years old and comfortable in my skin.
But in that moment, I was 17. And the experience was completely unnerving.
In retrospect, I'm grateful I was so completely triggered.
Because I work in a field that is ripe for that kind of reaction.
Middle school and high school are tough years for many of us. We're figuring ourselves out, finding what we like, who our friends are, what we're good at. And many of the people, women and men alike, who walk through our doors have had some sort of traumatic experience in a gym or fitness setting.
I actually don't know how to swim. In high school when it was time to swim for gym class I would stay in the shallow end of the pool and tell Mrs. Pompa that a person could drown in as little as two inches of water and that it was abuse to make me wear a bathing suit.
But really I was humiliated that all of my friends were swimming laps and I was hanging out in the shallow end.
We are hard wired to remember those feelings.
We don't forget what it felt like to be picked last for kickball, to sit on the bench during soccer or finish last in a relay race. We don't forget what it felt like to wear those horrific polyester gym uniform shorts that were only three inches long while Mrs. Pompa made us square dance (promenade!).
Sometimes it's easy to forget what people carry when they come through our doors. Not just what they carry now, but what they carry from 30 years ago. The white hot scars that never go away.
It's easy to look around, as coaches and fellow clients, and make assumptions about the people we see. We all carry our experiences, both old and new, and those experiences inform who we are and what we've become.
I guess that's why my go-to saying and sign off is to be strong and be kind.
Be kind. Be gentle. You never know what someone else carries.
I promise to do the same.
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