Middle school arrived with a flourish.
A new school year, a new and much larger school, new classmates and a whole host of new opportunities, all greeted my burgeoning “tween” head on, saturated in promise, not to mention anxiety. My son, Emmett, though excited about the concept of middle school was notably nervous, as he has always relished on routine, predictability, and comfort while terms like “change” and “transition” have left him frazzled and frozen. Despite any trepidation, he set out the first day with unbridled hope and enthusiasm, while I held vigil with our shared anxiety until that yellow bus returned him to me that afternoon. When he got home, he was not frazzled or frozen, nor anxious or upset, he was proud and invigorated. He reviewed every detail of his day and all the exciting new opportunities afforded him, pausing only to emphasize his newfound maturity and to ask if his voice sounded deeper. Within the epilogue to his glorious first day, he announced that he was going to join the cross-country team and that his first practice would be tomorrow.
My husband and I were ecstatic about his initial transition and even more so about his desire to join an athletic team, although admittedly skeptical that his cross-country aspirations would deflate once he realized he had to run. Emmett has always been a more stationary child, preferring to curl up with a book rather than ride his bike or play outside, despite our best efforts to encourage the latter. Emmett continued to surprise us. I picked him up after his first practice the next day, fully expecting his resignation, but he just grinned at me sweaty and red and said, “that was fun.”
At the end of the first week, Emmett told us that they would be doing time trials the following week to ensure that everyone could “keep up with the pack,” and that everyone was expected to run a mile in under 10 minutes to secure a spot on the team. I was a little taken aback by this news, as up until this point inclusivity and recreation had been the pillars of any athletic endeavor we had taken part in, but he reassured me that he was not worried and he continued to work towards his goal. He stumbled a few times, muscles sore and fatigued, but he ran everyday, even on weekends, trying to improve. When the day of the time trials arrived, we were all nervous. I watched the clock, and at 4:30 drove to the school to learn his fate. When I pulled in, I saw him immediately, smiling at me, in seemingly good spirits, but then he called to me, “Mama, Coach wants to talk to you.”
The coach was very friendly and explained that they had limited supervision and for safety needed everyone to be able to keep up, but that he was more than welcome to try again next year. I nodded in understanding and we pulled away from the school, watching the excited adolescents on the lawn from our foggy bubble. Emmett maintained his façade of “fine” until we turned on to our road and then began to crumble into grief and anger, pushing me away with, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I felt angry and wanted someone or something to blame.
“This is unfair. They are too young to be cut. What happened to inclusivity? He didn’t have long enough to train. He slept horrible. He missed his medication. His shoes were untied. Why would they want to discourage a child who is trying to be more active? He has only been in middle school for a week!”
I was grasping at straws, and although a lot of my concerns were valid, the real problem was that my son was experiencing failure for the first time and did not know how to deal with it, and honestly, neither did I. Once I realized this, I recognized the teachable moment I had stumbled upon. I spent that afternoon talking to Emmett about the inevitable “not good enoughs” in life. We talked about how to deal with big feelings, the consequences of working hard and trying your best, the pride and accomplishment that accompany success and the disappointment and doubt surrounding failure. Together we choked down the hard truth that sometimes, even when you try your best, you still fail, and that’s ok.
Over the next few days, Emmett discovered the drama club and various music programs at school, in which he has always excelled. By the following week, he was taking multiple instrument lessons, singing in the choir, participating in African drumming, and had a role in the school play, all of which would not have been possible had he been running cross-country. I still don’t know if agree with the idea of cutting ten year olds from the cross-country team, but I do know that it provided the opportunity for us to come face to face with an invaluable life lesson.