Posts Tagged ‘boys’

Boy Over Boys, Part I: Fudge

November 29, 2016


It was a little Texas Leaguer over the third baseman’s head.

It was perfect.

My younger son doesn’t quite have the brawn of my big boy.  Okay, that’s an understatement.

You remember what Steve Rogers looked like with his shirt off before he became Captain America?  That guy looks like a body-builder compared to my twiggy little fella.

But like that pre-serum Steve, Gunnar has a competitive fire that outstrips his two-dimensional frame.  He’s become an accomplished bunter, and we’ve worked together to compliment his blips with bloops; drawing the 3rd baseman in with the bunt attempt and then slapping one by him.

I was watching from my perch as 3rd base coach, already thinking that with a good bounce he might get a double out of the dunk.  And, out of nowhere, the shortstop hurtled in the air and made a spectacular catch; his little body sprawled right on the cutout between the infield dirt and outfield grass.

Shortly thereafter, a single word hurtled in the air from down the first base line:


Only he didn’t say “Fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.

It was the 3rd out of the inning, which was about the only thing that saved Gunnar’s bacon.  For the mix of players changing sides allowed a bit of distraction from his latest episode.

“Did you hear what he said?” The young base umpire, a college kid collecting a summer paycheck, seemed a bit bewildered by the language he likely heard about every 0.25 seconds in his dorm.  But timing is, of course, everything, be it comedy, tragedy, or in this case, an inextricably intertwined combination.

“Yep.  Hard to miss,” chuckled Dave, the burly veteran I’ve had behind the plate since my older one was hitting off a tee.

Dave flashed me a look as I jogged toward my flailing first-baseman, now flinging his helmet to the ground.

“Do what you need to do, Dave,” I replied.

“I think you’ve got this, Coach,” Dave said with a bemused grin.

He knew that this was my kid in full meltdown.  And he thought that it was a kindness that he pulled back on what should have been done—namely throwing my son out of the game.

It was not.  Because now we had to do the dance.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve needed to cha-cha between gentle support and tough love as Gunnar battled his competitive demons.  I myself toggled between an empathy borne from my own boyhood tennis temper tantrums and full-body rage over stolen home runs, to a frustration bred from repetition and the aforementioned familiarity with my own failings.

Of course, Gunnar was benched for the rest of the game.  Of course, he eventually felt terribly about what he did.  He told Coach Steve that he felt that there was a monster inside him that he couldn’t control.  He tearfully apologized to the entire team during our postgame talk.

It was heartbreaking.


As we prepared for the next day’s games, I knew that this time, he had crossed a line that needed to be addressed.  For the moment, I needed to put Dad aside, and put my coach’s hat on.  And so I consulted with Coaches Steve, Bill, Kevin, and of course Coach Nolet’s Dry Gin on the matter.  All were supportive and understanding (or at least helped calm me down a bit with intensely floral drinkability).  And everyone agreed—this time there needed to be consequences.

We settled on a one game suspension.  My first instinct was to bar him from the rest of the tournament, but my coaches talked me down off that ledge, reminding me how hard it’s been on Gunnar to be the “Coaches Kid.”  For while being in that role can lead to preening primadonnas when the kid is the best on the team, the role can also create intense pressure on the player who has had to work his tail off just to be middle-of-the-pack.

Gunnar had gotten that most reviled of sports taunts – “You’re only on the team because your Dad is the coach!” – on several occasions at school.  In his earnest desire to prove himself, he made each pitch, each swing, and each play in every single game into an unending death-spiral of a tryout.  Every failure reinforced the bullies’ jab, and, because this is baseball, by its very nature he failed more often than he succeeded.  The Monster, a creature he came by honestly (indeed, genetically) grew into something he could no longer control.

This Monster, however, had to be put in a cage.  And so my son…my player…my son…and I talked.  I let him know I was proud of the fact the apologized to the team after the game, and I understood this was a part of him he didn’t like.  But he had crossed a line, and both he and the team needed to know there were consequences to these actions.

And so father-and-son, player-and-coach stared at each other—eyes welling and voices cracking with guilt, love, and remorse—embraced, and accepted each other for who we were.

I then loaded the trunk and headed down to the field.


Only now do I realize that that was the beginning of the end.


An “Honor Code” That Dishonors our Teachers, Parents, and Kids

July 17, 2012

Man, I need some polish

Okay, so I’ve tried pretty hard not to climb on my soap box too much on this blog, but I’ve got to vent. As most of you have figured out by now, I’m pretty progressive on the political spectrum.  But as a student of conflict resolution, I believe that truly listening to different perspectives, and trying not to automatically throw a label on a particular argument is essential to growing and learning as a person.

So when the David Brookses or Charles Krauthammers of the world write a particularly cogent argument, especially on political (for Brooks) or foreign affairs (for Krauthammer) issues where I believe those two gentlemen have some intellectual heft, I may not agree, but I do often respect where they are coming from.

Unfortunately, David Brooks decided to take on an issue he clearly knows little about in his recent New York Times Op/Ed, “Honor Code.”  The issue is a real one—the fact that boys are generally slipping academically as compared to girls.  I wrote a Letter to the Editor which I will post below, but I want to say a few other things about what a disservice Brooks does to such an important subject.

Henry on Ritalin? Oh, how droll, David.

First, Brooks layers on a ridiculous story of what would happen in our society to Shakespeare’s Henry V, essentially saying that our education system is so focused on such horrors as “cooperation” and “studiousness” that the quirky and rambunctious Hal would have ended up a juvenile delinquent because he lacked that “group think” mentality.

Really, David?  Really?  Having gone to a conservative prep school from grades 7-12, I can tell you that nothing is more likely to push a quirky, independent kid to the margins of the system than a more “traditional” education.  Indeed, efforts to move away from the “conformity factory” model has created, at least here in Arlington, a more inclusive environment far more respectful of kids’ differences than I have ever seen.

Brooks does actually go on to make a couple of decent points, noting that boys are statistically falling behind in academics, and so much so at times that Universities are lowering standards to get more boys in schools.  After that, he hits on a vital sociological point about our modern society and how traditional “boy” skills fit in:

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the U.S., but in all 35 member-nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indeed, given the fact that the greatest commodity in modern society is the collection, analysis, and use of information, and the fact that CEOs across the world are looking more for those who can work well in group environments, think creatively, and work well within a large, socially-driven environment (think of the current importance of social networking to the modern economy), our post-industrial society does not favor the traditional “male” skills such as physical strength and social assertiveness.

But just as Brooks begins to make some sense, he decides to jump from social science to cultural nonsense:

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculum that teach how to share, but curriculum that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The big story here is how much damaging, unsupportable garbage Brooks is spewing out in two paragraphs.  His “environmental virtues vs. military virtues?”  Like that’s an “either/or”?  Like kids can’t care about both?  Like the number of JROTC and ROTC programs available across the country that dwarf student chapters of environmental groups?

Brooks should watch this brilliant movie to get a taste of the impact that the group think of “traditional education” has on boys.

And this false choice between collaboration and competition?  Absolute rubbish from everything I have seen in my kids’ schools, where, amazingly, both are intertwined.  Classes compete to raise money for good causes.  Kids compete for academic awards, and their individual achievements like the number of books they have read on their own (and, yes, they get to choose the books) go toward class achievements like getting a pizza party.  Field Day still has teams, winners, and losers.  But the fact that collaboration and competition can exist in the same plane, and that teachers are, more than ever, seeking to recognize both as skills rather than in the “good ole’ days” where bullying was just “boys being boys” and Social Darwinism was the order of the day is simply more of that liberal group think mentality to Brooks.

I’ll stop there and just post my LTE to finish my point (don’t think it’ll get printed as I broke the 150 word limit, oh well).  I just find it incredibly frustrating to see such an important issue which has real ramifications, real complexities, and real solutions turned into a glib and intellectually bankrupt piece such as this one.  End rant.

To the Editor:

David Brooks would have done real service in raising key issues with boys in our schools (Honor Code, July 6), but instead he turned it into a thinly veiled attack on what he obviously perceives as our soft, liberal education system.  As someone who struggled through a conservative prep school, I can tell you that there is no more repressive system to late bloomers with individual quirks than schools that embrace a “boot camp” mentality.

Indeed, it is the more “crunchy” schools that are providing better outlets for kids of all types to really thrive.  For example, H.B. Woodlawn here in Arlington, Virginia is one of the top public schools in the country, helping kids achieve by giving them the freedom to develop their own curriculum and embrace individual responsibility over their education—quite the opposite of the “group think” mentality Brooks derides.

If Brooks really wants to be part of the solution to the “boy problem” I would suggest he put down his pen, pick up a glove, and go coach a little league baseball team.  As I have learned from my dozen seasons behind the bench, our American game is uniquely suited to help show that teamwork and individual achievement, competition and collaboration, learning the rules and when to think outside-the-box are all skills that, when learned together can help kids from the meek to the wild channel their particular energies productively.  Indeed, many successful schools and teachers around the country are transitioning to more of a coaching method to help teach the same skill set in the classroom.

Hope to see you on the field soon, Coach Brooks.