Monday, April 19, 2010

Thank God for Football

J.J. loves art. Every day, he comes home and colors and cuts stuff out and tapes it to other stuff. He's never been too into playing sports with the older boys. That's fine. Maybe he'll get into sports later, like Johnny did, or maybe not.

I will say life is easier for Johnny since he started liking sports.

He said the other day, "I've been noticing I get a lot more respect these days."

"Why's that?" I asked, knowing the answer. I remember all too well those nights in first grade when Johnny would go to sleep crying about what some of the kids said to him during kickball (because he couldn't catch a ball to save his life.) This happened frequently enough that kickball, which I do not even consider to be a real sport, was ruining our lives. And I knew that once Johnny discovered football in second grade, and became obsessed with it, he suddenly became coordinated.

"I think it's because I'm better at sports now," he said.

"How do you feel about that?" I asked.

"I like it," he said.

Well, I guess he would. But I thought he might think the kids were being a little shallow.

"I think kids should be nice to people whether they're good at sports or not," I said. "I think those are your real friends."

"Yeah," he said. "They are." But I guess there's no reason not to enjoy the respect of your...fake friends? No, I mean kids change. A mean kid one year can be a sweetheart the next. And it's a lot to ask of kids to think like grownups...and grownups who have their priorities straight, at that.

There will come a day when the kids in his class will respect people for different being involved in the community or standing up for the little guy, or taking on the big guy, or raising a nice family, or being good at anything, not just sports, or simply not being a jerk. But I guess in third grade it comes down to whether you can field a kickball. (Again, not a real sport.)

I'd be stressed out about J.J. except that now I know that everything changes with kids from year to year...and also every class is different. J.J. might like sports later or he might have a class who doesn't care. To tell you the truth, none of this has even crossed my mind until now, when I'm writing about it.

But in spite of not really liking sports, J.J. always asks us to sign him up for flag football. Last year, he'd get the ball and run, and look back and laugh as if to say "Which of you kids wants to tackle me? Don't make me run the length of the whole dang field!"

Not that his goofiness stood out. There were kids tackling their own teamates, trying to strip the ball off their own coach, carrying lawn chairs onto the field...

Now it's Spring flag football season, and J.J. had his first game Monday night. His team was maroon and the other team, purple. The color blind kids were s.o.l.

On the first play, J.J. was on defense. After the ball was snapped, he picked out the biggest old boy on the purple team, ran across the field, tore off his flag, and held it up for the ref and all the world to see. The only problem was: that kid didn't have the ball.

Later, Richie said that boy, DeJon, was J.J.'s evil twin. (In Richie's world, if you look remotely like somebody else, you are their evil twin.) J.J. said, "Yeah, I'm evil to DeJon because he said a bad word to me."

I hadn't seen DeJon say a word to anyone all night.

"What word was it?" I asked, skeptically.

"Butt," J.J. said.

Of course, it was. Of all the bad words for a kid to allegedly say, it would have to be "butt."

Johnny said, "He probably said, 'I'm going to kick your---"

"Shhh. How did he say it?" I asked.

"He opened his mouth and moved his tongue like this:" (He mouthed the word butt.)

Jeez. I know how human beings form words. I meant did he say, "Butthead," "Move your butt," or just a random, "Butt." Oh whatever, it's not like he even said it.

Another play, the coach told J.J. to get the ball. J.J. ran over to the kid, made eye contact, and took it out of his hands. The kid relinquished it like a kid giving the ball to a ref after the whistle. Still, in my heart of hearts, J.J. stripped the ball.

Then he actually got a flag...and a touchdown. Well, good. He can play football. That will soften the blow during kickball "season" at school.

Of course, the whole thing leaves me retrospective. Why didn't we sign Johnny up for flag football at J.J.'s age? Why did we waste so much time on soccer? (Not that there's anything wrong with soccer, but kicking sports were a problem.) Richie was fine with soccer. In school, he had to write a book, complete with a dedication and bio. He wrote, "I'm Richie. I like to play sports. It is my thing to play sports. I'm good at it. I play with my big brother. He's nine. I'm seven." He didn't end up writing the actual book, but he did dedicate the blank pages to J.J., which was nice. The point is, when it comes to sports--or anything really--Richie fits in where he gets in, to quote Snoop Dog.

Well, maybe the kickball tragedy of first grade taught Johnny some important lessons. First, it stinks to have people give you a hard time for something you can't help. Coordination arrives in it's own sweet time, or in some cases, is a complete no show. And second, you should respect people for whatever they're good at, whether it's kickball or art or just being nice.

But for now, I think the lesson Johnny took away from the whole thing is: "I'm glad I figured out how to play football so I could finally get some respect."

And I'm okay with that less hippie-ish lesson.

Last summer, Johnny went to a football camp, and the coach said, "Thank your mothers for bringing you to camp and thank God for football."

"Amen," I said. "Amen."

Friday, April 02, 2010

What Boys Think About

The other day, I was in the library with a group of first grade boys. A fifth grade boy walked through the room and climbed the stairs. Just before he reached the landing, he turned around and said, "I could beat all of you at basketball."

They stared at him like, "Well, duh. Seeings how you're four years older than us."

Then he clarified. "I meant I could beat all of you at the same time. My team won the city championships."

The first graders started saying, "No. We'd beat you up. We'd punch you."

I guess they'd be playing Moms & Pops rules. Moms & Pops is a tournament in which mainly the dads play each other according to what class their oldest kid is in. My brother says it gives dads the opportunity the moms have through the PTA to form lifetime enemies. It rarely comes to blows. But there are some friendly headlocks and elbows to the eyeballs. It's Justin's favorite weekend of the year.

The basketball statement got me thinking about the things that occupy young boys' minds. The things that, 20 years from now, won't even be a blip on their radar.

Things like the logistics of opposite.

"There is no such thing as opposite day," I heard Johnny argue with his friend the other day. "Because if you say it's opposite day, it is not opposite day."

Twenty years from now, Wednesday will roll around and their boss will say, "There's a meeting today at 4:30."

And it won't even cross their minds to say, "Too bad it's opposite day!"

Also in 20 years, they'll no longer know, within half an inch, how tall their friends' dads are. In the car today, we drove by a parking lot with six foot three clearance. Johnny's friend said, "My dad could make that by one inch. Your dad's head would be touching the ceiling."

Remember when you used to know exactly how tall your friends' dads were? Kids wore it like a badge of honor.

"My dad is five foot eleven."
"My dad is five foot eleven and a half."
"My dad is five foot seven but he once lifted a car." (Short but strong was just as good as tall.)

You might still know, off the top of your head, how tall your oldest friends' dads are. But I bet you don't know--or have even thought to ask--how tall your colleagues' dads are. Or your neighbors' dads. Maybe it's because, as a kid, you knew your friends' height might mirror their parents' height. Now, not only are your friends finished growing, but you also don't give a hollering hoot how tall they are. It's something that only concerns kids.

Here's the thing with the basketball comment, though. I've never seen Justin announce to a room of people, "I could beat all of you in basketball. Not one at a time. But all at once. I'm the champion of the city. Beyond that, have a great weekend and enjoy your cocktails."

But sometimes, maybe he's thinking it.