Remedial gym class.
Yep, if there was ever a way to truly ostracize a kid in our school system-- a way to hang a big ol' school-board-sanctioned "Kick Me" sign on a first grader's fledgling social standing-- remedial gym class would rank pretty highly in the list.
The Presidential Physical Fitness tests would occur my first year of school, and the school decided I was apparently not measuring up.
My arm hang was weak.
My sit-up quantities per minute were sub-par.
And my stylistic form during relay-racing was just all over the place.
I wasn't even six, and I was athletically washed-up.
My low status in gym class set a tone that carried all the way through to fourth grade.
That was the year I got braces and glasses and that fashionable thick black elastic band required by school law to hold my glasses tight to my head during exercise; I guess so if I got hit in the face and my glasses shattered, the maximum amount of lens would penetrate my eye.
It was also the year kickball became the unofficial-official sport of my classroom.
Now I've mentioned in the past how after lunch, when they sent us out onto the playground, we weren't allowed any sort of sports equipment, running, jumping, skipping, hopscotch, jump-rope or other potential lawsuit-inducing activities.
However, if fully-supervised by our classroom teacher, we would get some time for recess.
This meant an organized sport. This meant, it basically was one more gym class to add to my regular humiliation.
This meant, I was faced with kickball.
Ah, kickball... Each year, kickball came up, and each year kickball was explained to us as, "It's just like baseball but you kick a red rubber ball."
My grasp on the concept of baseball, however, was tenuous at best. I knew baseball as that sport that my grandfather put on television and then fell asleep in his lounge chair.
I knew it as the program which, the moment I would try to change the channel, Grampa would wake up abruptly and grumble how he "was watching that, put it back"-- then wipe a little of the snore-drool from his chin.
I knew baseball as the thing that prevented me from watching Godzilla marathons on WWOR-TV.
So, when it was my turn to kick, I knew I should kick the ball as it came at me. But after that, I was fairly fuzzy on the finer points of the remaining procedure. Mostly, I'd weigh my options about what to do next, intentionally hesitating long enough that someone would tag me out before any key decisions had to be made.
I found it to be a lame but effective strategy.
So year after year, I was chosen in the near-last range for kickball. I say "near last" because there were maybe two other kids leftover from First Grade Remedial Gym Class who hadn't gotten the hang of the whole group sports thing, either.
Most of us were only children, and I see how it happens. Breathtakingly exciting pick-up games of baseball aren't exactly common when it's one kid in the backyard throwing the ball up and batting it into a tree hoping for a rebound.
Anyway, so as fourth grade led into summer, each clear day we would go out for kickball, and I'd bunt it, and get an out, and go back to wait for my next round of embarrassment
Until José Rodriquez went all Gene Hackman on me.
I don't know how he figured out the root of my kickball problem--because I thought at the time my stall-tactics had been fairly credible.
But somewhere along the way, José had come to realize the reason I was such a lousy kickball player was simply because I just didn't understand kickball. And that's when this kid-- a who had always called me names up until now-- decided to help me.
Maybe he thought it was better to take me under his wing than lose the game. Maybe he'd known someone who was confused before, too. Maybe he took an epiphany kickball to the head. I really don't know.
What I do know is, the first time he coached me, it was startling. The pitcher rolled the ball to me, I stepped forward, gave it a decent-enough kick, put on my "Hm, maybe I don't really feel like running anywhere" face, and then saw José standing by first base. "Here. Here. Run here!"
So I ran. I made it to first base! It was monumental. I stood there in a state of absolute disbelief.
So the next kid was up to kick. He kicked the ball. And, again-- there was José. At second base this time, waving me in. "This one now. This one. Okay, he's got the ball. So stay! Stay!"
And I stayed. Elated. Delighted. There on second base.
When I made my first run ever, it was such a weight off my fourth-grade shoulders. I was a kid who could score a run! Not a moment worth Olympic notoriety, or my own trading card or anything. But it was one moment where I wasn't a liability to my team.
The macadam on the playground was filled with sparkling metallic flecks I'd never noticed before.
That day, and the two kickball games thereafter, I learned so much. Suddenly I knew when to run. I knew when to steal. And I knew when to sprint all the way home.
The sun shone a bit brighter those days. Even more amazingly, I moved up a good three kids in the team selection rankings.
I think back on those kickball days with a bit of warmth in my heart. Sure, I still got tagged out sometimes. And yeah, I got headaches from that lovely black rubber band riveting my glasses to my skull. But it was the first time I learned I could actually be a part of something that didn't involve glue and safety scissors.
Yes, indeed, it was a long way from Remedial Gym Class.
And I have José Rodriguez to thank for it.
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