There’s no denying it, I was a weird kid. I always knew that about myself, but as I grew into adolescence, the middle school years, it started to bother me. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out why, going as far back as I could remember, that I always had the feeling that everybody else knew something that I didn’t, that they’d been privy to a secret that forever eluded me.
Looking back on it now, it’s obvious. Because of where my birthday, November 4th, fell in relation to the cut-off date for determining when a kid would start school (at the time, November 30th), I was nearly a year younger than most of my classmates, and younger than all but one kid in my class. This might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in seventh or eighth grade, a year can make a big difference. The maturation process for boys, both physically and emotionally, is hyper-accelerated in those years. It was like a gun was fired and the race began, everybody sprinting out of the blocks, while I lagged behind, clueless, wondering who’d been shot.
Physically I was always one of the smallest kids in my class. I remember in tenth grade, I was five foot two and weighed 94 pounds, lighter than all but two in my phy-ed class. Football was not an option. I did okay in little league baseball, but that was because it used a different cutoff date than the public school system used, so when I was twelve, I was playing with other kids who were a year behind me in school but the same age during the baseball season. You’d think that it would have occurred to me that this was the root of my problems, that the reason I played baseball so well was because, unlike school, I was with kids my own age. But that lightbulb never went on, even in the endless hours I spent trying to figure out why I didn’t fit in with my classmates.
My immaturity wasn’t limited to physical realms. I was emotionally immature as well, manifesting itself in behavior that ran from extremes of manic inappropriateness to near catatonic states of sullen brooding. All the standardized tests showed that I was well above average in intelligence, yet I was a terrible student, plagued by a short attention span that had I been born ten or twenty years later with would have likely led to chemical treatment.
I had two older brothers, six and four years ahead of me, who when I was growing up never seemed to have any problem fitting in. I always looked up to them, and silently wondered why they were okay and I was such a mess.
At some point I became an unabashed sports fanatic, following the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NBA religiously. I loved playing them all in backyard or driveway games in the neighborhood. My two best friends at the time were also classmates, Danny M, who was a truly gifted athlete, and Joey H., who was blessed with the gift of being movie-star handsome.
In sixth grade, we all tried out for the basketball team. Try outs were after school and finished on a Friday right before my birthday with a big scrimmage game. I remember I didn’t play well in the scrimmage, so I wasn’t surprised on Monday morning when they posted the names of who’d made the team that Danny and Joey’s names were listed but mine was not.
But here’s the thing – after that disappointment, in a rare display of maturity, I started working my ass off, practicing my ball handling and shooting every night in my driveway, putting in literally hundreds of hours, so that the following year when try-outs came around, I was ready and confident. When they ended, on my birthday, the Friday night after the big scrimmage in which I scored eight points on four for five shooting and grabbed a couple of rebounds, I went home certain I’d made the team. At home there was birthday cake and the gift of a brand new Spalding basketball waiting for me. And Danny and Joey came over and we all knew that the three of us had all made the team.
Late the following Monday morning, between second and third periods, and we’re all crowded around the bulletin board reading the sheet of paper with the typed names of who’d made the team. I quickly find Danny and Joey’s names. Soon the crowd disburses but I’m still there, looking for my name until I finally accept that it’s not there. When I do, I start crying. I try to stop myself but I can’t, and I’m late for the beginning of my next class, Science, my eyes red and puffy as I make my way to my seat.
Danny and Joey spend the rest of the day telling me how unfair it is, how I should have made the team, but, as sincere as I know they are, it doesn’t help. I go home and shut myself in my room and brood, finally venturing out just before supper time. As I walk down the dark hallway I can hear my oldest brother, who for some unremembered reason I was fighting and not on speaking terms with at the time, in the living room, talking to my mom, when I heard him say:
“There’s no way Joey’s better than Dave. No way.”
I stopped and quietly went back to my room. For some reason it felt important not to reveal that I’d heard what he said. I think it was because if he didn’t know I was listening, then he wasn’t saying it for my benefit, just to make me feel better. He’d really meant it, and that meant everything to me.