I’m feeling nostalgic once again. Going to middle school was a time of tremendous change for me. Once such radical change for me was Adapted Physical Education, or A. P. E. I had a coach, Tim O’Brien. He told me to call him “Coach” but I really didn’t call him anything. He made me too nervous. All the 45 minute sessions we had together were intense. I was lifting weights, doing wheelchair laps, shooting baskets, trying to push a heavy ball over a wall of rolled tarp, tennis, volleyball (it’s a pain taking those things to the head) …it was all very strenuous and exhausting every day. This wasn’t P.E. or even exercize. This was military training. At the end of the year, I was certain I would qualify for a tour of duty.
He really thought I could do everything. The sad truth was that I couldn’t.
I was slow, I tired easily, and I was too short for his liking. He made it a point to often tell me I was short. I never liked that. He wasn’t exactly a tall guy. He also made it a point to tell me that the boys over at Strickland Middle School were doing better than I was—they could give their chairs ONE PUSH and hit the wall of the gym on the other side. “C’mon, you can do better,” he’d say. But, again, try hard as I did, I just couldn’t. I wasn’t a boy. I would never be a boy. And I would never be tall. I knew this. I was fine with it.
On one of the first days we worked together, he asked me, “How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I guess,” I said, being honest.
“No! You don’t tell me you’re okay. You tell me, ‘I feel wonderful coach!’”
Okay, I thought. For whatever reason, he wants me to lie. He wanted me to respond and take whatever he threw at me with a can-do attitude, even if I clearly couldn’t do it. He wanted me to do it with all my might, my enthusiasm. I tried. Some days I was better at faking it and taking it than others. Don’t get me wrong, there were the fun times, but I always had a rather fast burn-out rate. I’d keep doing something and doing it and doing it until I was gasping or coughing or my muscles screamed and couldn’t move that way anymore. That’s what he wanted me to do. I was sure of that, so very sure he never wanted to hear, “I don’t feel wonderful! I have to stop! It hurts so much! I’m so tired!” He wants the lie. He wants my best, even when I can’t give it. I will try. I will try to please him so he doesn’t see me as less than. But I felt like anything I tried would never be good enough. He was even genuinely angry at me once when I snarked at him for twisting my hand in a direction that I couldn’t maintain, plus it was painful the way he adjusted my hand in his.
“What? What am I doing wrong? What, what, what?!” I snapped.
“HEY!” he growled deeply. I shut my mouth. I was ready to cry, but held it in. He had yelled at me. I was in the wrong, I gave the wrong response to him.
There was a time later on I was feeling sick. I knew I was. It was a sinus infection or something of that nature. I was run down. But I pretended I wasn’t and over compensated, shooting as many baskets as I could in a row as fast as possible. Oh, man, it was exhausting. Coach noticed I was struggling to keep going. He saw my exhaustion I was so desperately trying to hide.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I do believe that was the first time he asked me that.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. He told me he preferred I lie, after all. He didn’t like quitters and can’t do attitudes.
I missed school the next day. Of course I did. I was drained. Luckily, I had the weekend to recover.
When P.E. time rolled around again that Monday, he didn’t wait for me to meet him at Mount Street Gym. He surprised me by coming up the elevator and snagging me with him personally.
“Where were you on Friday?” Detective Coach inquired.
“I was sick,” I said.
“You lied to me,” he deduced.
“So what? I lived,” I returned.
“If you don’t feel good, tell me.”
This was now very confusing. Okay, so, if I know I don’t feel good, if I am exhausted and ready to die, I must tell him. I never did quite figure out how to tell him such.
I would struggle internally with what I thought he expected of me and what I thought he thought of me until a most remarkable session came. He had me pushing him in my chair all around the gym. It was empty of all the other students that day. I lost track of how long I had been going. He asked me if I was tired once, if I needed to stop or if we could go around the perimeter one more time. I was sure I could do that, it was only one more lap, one more time. I would please him by working a little bit harder and a little bit more. Oh, I was almost there, too. Step, step, push. Oh, just a few more steps, another push.
My leg begged to differ. My foot came up short. Gravity suddenly pounced out from behind me. I collapsed ungracefully backwards, all back and head slamming to the waxed wood floor.
And then I hear from the floor, “Oh…honey!” And arms cradle me to scoop me up. And Coach holds me that way for a second or two longer before putting me back in my chair and insisting on calling it a day. “You should tell me when you are too tired,” he admonished.
Inside my head, I am having a giggle fit like a toddler. Did he just cradle me? He called me ‘honey’! Me, of all people! Why?
I didn’t quite understand him again. I only fell. There was no blood and only a fleeting second of pain. Why the sudden attentiveness? Why the apologetic look? Why the term of endearment as if I were a deeper attachment?
I always thought I was too short, to slow, too tired, a liar, too stubborn. And then, when I fall, when I embarrass myself by stumbling, by collapsing, by being clumsy…he’s taking care of me. How quaint!
It is that moment that stays with me. It was hard for me to understand what he wanted me to be, but I think at that moment I saw briefly who he really was and how he thought that I was good enough—that he had thought so, perhaps, all along. And that’s all I ever wanted. Such was the peace he gave me that day and for that, I have always smiled. Thanks, Coach.