Kindergarten Cool

        Even in kindergarten, Kurt was one of the cool kids.

        Michael –not so much. He was a science kid with some
quirky habits and an incessant need to chatter. His best friends were the girls
listening raptly of his latest creations; not the boys tossing footballs and
playing tackle.

Easy to understand, then, that Kurt and Michael were not
going to be soul mates.

On the other hand, their relationship could have played
out much differently than it did over the years.

But early on, I caught a glimmer of things to come.

Tapped as photographer for his third grade class, I was in
charge of taking candid shots one morning when I was privy to a single
schoolyard conversation that would foreshadow Michael’s station among his peers
throughout his school years.

A few boys were building a snow fort at recess. I couldn’t
fully assess the group dynamic, but Kurt was clearly in charge. At least a head
taller than his peers, Kurt was a formidable presence on the playground and
when he spoke, the kids (and often adults) listened. When construction was
being hampering by too many hands at work, the boys scattered the newcomers from
the project.

Then Kurt spoke –except,
Michael. He can stay; he’s good at this stuff
.

And the boys listened.

That early stamp-of-approval was telling. Of both boys.

In spite of star-sponsored campaigns against it, bullying
remains an insidious presence on school grounds across the country. Rarely a
month goes by without headlines offering the worst-case-scenario results of unchecked
tormentors.

In a parallel universe, Kurt could have been a bully;
Michael a victim.

But Kurt wasn’t a mean kid. And Michael was always comfortable
in his own skin.

He was also funny and smart and honest. Regardless of how
far astray Michael’s interests were from many of his peers, the kids left a
spot for him –on the playground, in the classroom and even on their teams.

A few years later, one of the not-so-nice kids on
Michael’s team had him aside, away from the safety of teammates and coaches. I watched
the encounter from a distance, with apprehension; I’d seen and heard this boy
in action. But when I later asked Michael why he’d been singled out, Michael
said his teammate had been giving him some batting pointers. Hmm.

I like those sorts of surprises. They make me think that
our kids often do better without us. That off of our interceptive radar, they don’t
disappoint.

Truth is –bullies aren’t born; they’re created. More
often than not, they are the offspring and fully woven cloth of their parents.
Apples, trees –an old lesson, but a telling one, nonetheless. Genes collide
with circumstance and the results are what produce those headlines: bullies and
beaters and cheaters and worse –rapists and killers.

In classrooms and playgrounds and high school hallways, we
can teach our students to follow the golden rule, to respect their peers and
their teachers. We can craft handbook rules and laws of punishment. We’d be
better off, though, starting at home, modeling the behavior we expect of our
children. By giving them praise only when they deserve it; offering punishment that fits the crime, and by stepping back sometimes and allowing them to receive the
results of a few natural consequences.

Sure, teachers need to be disciplinarians; it’s in their
job description. And laws of protection—even when they seem common sense—need to
be clear and enforceable. But sometimes back-to-basics isn’t such a bad idea:
do unto others, love thy neighbor, and maybe -just be a good person. 



Hall of Famer

           

       Barry Bonds
believes he belongs in Cooperstown. “Not a doubt in my mind,” he says.

       Certainly
Bonds was an incredible athlete and his 762 career homeruns were an unparalleled
feat which toppled baseball legend Hank Aaron’s 755 homerun record set decades
earlier.

       But

       And it’s a
big but.

       Bonds
cheated.

       And that’s
not okay.

       Bonds is up
for Hall of Fame consideration this year. He wants in. Of course he does.

       But those
voting should say no -simply, no. It’s time we send a right message to all the
little kids who may want to follow in those considerable footsteps of his.

       That there
are consequences to actions, that even those whose egos are as big as their
paychecks can be held accountable. That there is a cost to cheating.

       For Bonds’s
talents—steroid-fueled or not—he was amply rewarded. One of the highest paid
baseball players of all time, over the course of his career, Bonds earned more
than $175 million –for playing a game. Until the tide turned against him, he
was also idolized by millions; he was baseball royalty with all its perks,
privileges and prestige.

       Now, he wants
more.

       He wants his
obstruction of justice conviction during the BALCO steroid scandal overturned
to clear his way for a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

       There is a
school of thought that believes Bonds (and others like him) should perhaps be
allowed into Cooperstown, but with an asterisk attached to his name.

       That’s
ridiculous.

       If baseball
truly is the American pastime, then there let’s attach some old-fashioned American
pride and principles to the sport. Let’s acknowledge all the truly great
players who came long before Bonds and give them a nod of respect -by not
allowing Bonds in their company.

       Perhaps this
rant is fueled by the fact that late Johnny Pesky, Mr. Baseball himself,
doesn’t have a spot in Cooperstown.

       Pesky wasn’t
just a stellar baseball player; from all accounts he was an all-round good guy.

       Born on the
day Babe Ruth played his last game as a Red Sox, Pesky dedicated his entire
life to the sport he loved. And asked little in return.

       And oh yeah,
he could play the game.

       In his first
three seasons, Pesky led the league in hits and he held a lifetime batting
average of .307 (Hank Aaron’s was .305). When he finished his 1942 season,
Pesky’s batting average was number two in the league –behind teammate Ted
Williams.

       So he was no
slouch.

       Problem was
that he missed the next three seasons to serve in the Navy during World War II
–can’t rack up hits and defensive plays when you’re defending your country. He
was also sidelined by an injury later in his career.

       I understand that
Hall of Fame consideration starts with stats. Maybe Pesky’s didn’t quite
measure up. On the other hand, please tell me that it’s not just about numbers.

       Please tell
me that we give some credit for all those other attributes we attach to the
best of our athletes: dedication, passion, perseverance. Maybe even good sportsmanship?

       Sure, I’m
biased. Red Sox Nation knows a true baseball hero when it sees one. John
Michael Pesky was a hero.

       Bonds or
Pesky? Puh-leeze.


Team Spirit


    I play softball.


    Not often, or well. But I still play.


    Which means I’m part of a team.


    At this point in my life, that means something much different from what it once did.


    It’s also something different from the kind of teams to which my kids and neighbor’s kids have belonged over the years.


    For the obvious reasons, sure.


    My team likes to win, but we’re not too upset when we lose. This isn’t a competitive league. We’ve got no umps, we don’t keep stats.


    And an injury (or even the threat of one) pretty much trumps athletic effort. We don’t so much give it our all as we do just give it a go.


    But we play games, keep score, do try to round the bases. We have opponents we like to best, and others we cheer on with the same enthusiasm we offer to our own teammates.


    It’s touted as a friendly league. And it is.


    At one point or another, both my kids have been members of teams. They have been part of something bigger than just themselves, and have contributed. In very different ways, both have had an impact on their teams.


    And their teams have had an impact upon them. And for the good and bad of it, so have their coaches.


    The best of those coaches taught, supported, encouraged  -and still demanded. They loved the game and wanted to share their passion. They sent messages about camaraderie and sportsmanship, about how to treat one another and their opponents and about how to handle winning and losing, as a team.


    The worst of them also sent some pretty powerful messages. Like the good guys, they demanded a certain level of play from the kids, but their means were often warped. They taught the basics of the game –but just barely, assuming that the “real” players already knew the fundamentals- and worked more on strategies and tricks. Win-at-any cost attitudes filtered through to little kids feeling big pressure.
 
    Some of those coaches scolded, ranted, belittled. Some cheated. I saw coaches ignore any sense of fairness, keeping  “good” players in long past their due, then demean them when they didn’t perform as expected. They scouted their baby opponents and then gave their own team members a heads-up on weak links. These were big guys coaching little kids to beat their buddies, at whatever cost. I remember hearing one coach advise a 12-year old pitcher barely in control of his blazing fast ball to “brush ‘im off the plate.” And hearing another coach greet his top player as he stepped onto the game field by asking “Are you going to strike out again?”


    And that was the “coaching” offered to the good players.


    But on the sidelines, the worst of those coaches were praised. Parents jockeyed to get their kids under the tutelage of the guy with the winning record.


    Seriously?


    Why?


    We live in a small town. Think big fish-small pond analogy. I always wondered about the parents who couldn’t see what I thought was so obvious.


    Easy stuff, like –it’s supposed to be fun. And that winning really isn’t EVERYTHING.


    And that their kids weren’t going to make it to the pros.


    Turns out I didn’t really have to tell them that their kids weren’t getting athletic scholarships; a lot of those kids didn’t even make the high school cut.


    But I do wish someone had said something to a few of the raving lunatics on the sidelines and in the dugouts. Because too many kids were losing, for the sake of winning. In the name of hollow victory, they were missing all the good stuff that being part of a team can teach.


    Michael had a pair of coaches who believed pretty whole-heartedly that the kids on their team had to respect the game and one another. They coached and taught the kids to play with a sense of equity. Everyone played; no one was stuck in right field for the season.


    Funny thing about that team –they won. A lot.


    I like my team. We win, too. On and off the field. Because I measure the true success of our team by who we’ve become over a lot of years batting a ball around and playing a bit of catch.


    I only wish my kids and their friends had had the same opportunity as me to learn a bit more about what it can really mean to be part of a team.