Please, just indulge me.
I’m not your sporting type. I’m shit at football, find it hard to concentrate on the game for ninety minutes and I clap the team I’m supposed to hate when they play well.
That’s not to say I don’t keep fit. I do, after a fashion, in between the sloth and the self indulgence.
I know how to hurt myself just as well as I know how to treat myself.
But this isn’t really about me, I think.
Actually, it is and it isn’t.
Last night my son was playing in a basketball tournament, one of these inter-school things.
He’s eight years old.
And it was strange because I felt excited. I wanted him to do well. He’s not the most physical of kids, he’d rather Playstation than play football and the last time he played out on the street he crashed his bike into a parked van and I had to carry him home screaming and he didn’t go out again for a month.
But fuck it, he can sit and read a book in one sitting, he draws the most amazing comic books for himself and he works hard in the classroom. He has something I don’t – he can focus.
So when he volunteered for the basketball team I felt really proud. He was having a go.
I changed my work shifts so I could pick him up from his practice sessions, turned up early to watch him on the court. I’d stand outside in the cold dark and watch through the sweat wet glass as these little figures in big vests thumped across the gym, shouting and jostling, and I suppose I prayed for him, whatever that’s worth.
So yesterday I swapped my shifts again and drove round to the high school where the tournament was taking place. This is the school where he’ll be going in less than three years, big school, big pool for little fishes, the place that made us lie awake at eleven years old and silently shit ourselves.
It’s a good school, but everyone little is somehow frightened of big.
I negotiated the maze of corridors, asking cleaners and stray teachers the way, soon able to follow the roar of the crowd echoing like only a sports hall echoes.
Through double doors and into the shouts, screams, squeak of trainers on polished floor, the judder of the ball against the hoop, the steady thud and scuffle of the court.
There were a lot of parents already there, more than I thought there’d be. I pushed through, looking for the red strip of my son’s team, and soon saw them.
There’s something very primal that hits you when you see your child crying. It takes you over. When I saw him I rushed straight over and just picked him up, held him.
“Hey mate! It’s me! What’s up, are you hurt?”
When he realised it was me, he just buried his head into my chest and sobbed.
The basketball coach looked worried.
I asked her, “Is he hurt?”
She shook her head and looked embarrassed. “No. I think he’s just… had enough.”
I checked my watch. They’d been playing for half an hour, tops.
I spoke to me son again, I said, “What’s wrong? You’ve got to tell me.”
Through the snuffles and sobs he said he didn’t want to do it anymore, he wanted to go home.
I looked around. Every other kid was cheering their team, taking a shot, blocking a pass, running down the court, marking a player.
He was the only one crying.
One of his team came over, looking puzzled. The kid asked, “Is he okay?”
And I said, “Yes, he’s fine, he’s just…”
He was just quitting, giving up. There was nothing wrong at all, he’d simply given up.
And that’s when I felt the wave hit me, a thick, viscous sea that I couldn’t control, something I’d not felt before.
I felt ashamed of my son.
The wave of shame just smothered me for a moment and I could do nothing to stop it.
The kid wandered off to join the team, his team. I levered my son’s face from the damp patch on my shirt. His face was red. Snot smeared his upper lip. He was blinking big, wet tears. His chest shuddered and heaved with sobs.
But I felt no pity, only an anger that I tried to control.
“Listen, are you hurt?”
He shook his head.
“Then why all this? What the Hell is wrong? You’re part of a team! Dammit, there’s kids half your size out there! Look! Everyone’s getting stuck in!”
He made excuses, sobbed untruths, but really he just admitted he didn’t want to do it.
If I’m honest, I wanted to slap him. I wanted to vent my black rage, my disappointment and shame. It wasn’t his lack of skill that hurt but his quitting, the rolling over as soon as things got a little bit difficult.
And I could hear myself, the touchline dad berating the eight year old, a character I’ve always hated and he was suddenly me, and I had to stop myself.
Why was I doing this? Why make such a big deal out of a game?
I knew why.
You see, when I was a kid I was bullied. It started at about eight, didn’t stop until I was sixteen.
I had no way of fighting back, I didn’t know how. So I just soaked it up and withdrew. I stopped listening to everything, to the kids who taunted me and the teachers who shouted at me.
I built a shell that was everything proof, where very little got in.
I took this shell to high school where things were worse and the shell had to get a bit thicker. Obviously some things got through, such as cripplingly low self esteem and an overwhelming sense of failure, but on the whole it did a pretty good job.
Unfortunately it kept a lot of teaching out too, which isn’t so good for high school.
I was labelled a quiet failure and gently pushed to the back of class to do my failing out of sight, out of mind.
I lived in dread of school, a physical, sickening dread. It seemed relentless.
One day, a particularly bad day, my mind suddenly opened a strange box that a thirteen year old mind should never open. Inside the box was a little message that said:
‘It’s alright, because you can always get out of this by killing yourself tonight.’
And it all suddenly felt much better.
That night I didn’t kill myself, I hadn’t even worked out a method of trying to do it, but I could no longer get the box closed.
Once open, it stays open.
The prospect of doing this, of killing myself, presented itself to me as a comfort, not a horror.
It became an option to me in the darkest times because it was my only option, and one option is better than no options. It became a constant thought, whispering behind the mockery.
Now, this isn’t a weepy little boo hoo story. I’m not scraping around for pity because I do not want anyone’s fucking pity. There’s plenty of people who’ve had it way worse, it’s just that I’ve had to think things through over the years and work out who I am, why I think like I do. The thoughts and feelings of the thirteen year old me made the forty year old me.
The thing in the box was my option, my release from relentless unhappiness.
But one day I got another option.
In sports I was a last choice kid, standing with the half blind and the built up shoe and the fat, waiting as the captains argued as to who would have to take their choice of lepers.
On one particular day, the usual captains again left me until last as they picked teams for the new sport on the curriculum.
At six foot three I was an odd looking thing, made mostly from elbows and knees, a string of awkward knuckles. I waited to be picked last and shambled onto the court.
And my life changed.
At the end of the game, my sports teacher spoke to me for the first time, gave me the first complimentary nickname I’d had in my whole life.
I’d done well.
Game after game followed. I played against the bullies, tore the ball from their grasp. I faced up to them and sometimes they looked away. I loped down the court, launched myself into the air, foiling shots no-one else could reach, lobbing the ball far over the heads of the other kids, into the hoop.
I stopped being picked last. I was often picked first.
I was no Magic Johnson, but I could play better than most. The game gave me a little bit of dignity, a bit of respect. It allowed me to fight back without being beaten up, it levelled the playing field. It didn’t matter if I lost the game, at least I’d fought for the ball until the final whistle and that meant I wasn’t beaten.
It was basketball that kept the message in the box quiet.
Quitting would have meant the message in the box was my only option again.
The bullying didn’t stop altogether, but basketball gave me just enough to get by on, to survive.
And now I was holding an eight year old boy amidst the screams and shouts of the basketball court, a boy who was quitting.
Had I made him like that? Was it my fault? In a way I had.
He felt comfortable enough to just give up. Yes, the pressure made him cry, but he didn’t have anything to fight for, yet. But I knew that soon he would.
Kids can be bastards, we all know that. Heartless, ruthless little bastards. And if you’re weak, different, odd looking, sound funny, wear funny clothes, they’ll happily descend in a pack and tear you apart.
My lad hadn’t felt that yet. I’d made sure of that. So was I over protective? I don’t know. I’m just doing the best job as a dad that I can.
I really didn’t know what to do, in the crowd by the court, watching enviously as a tall, gangly kid effortlessly launched a ball off the backboard to the cheers of the crowd. I knew that I could have got the ball in from where I stood, some thirty yards from the hoop, but no-one was there to see a middle-aged balding man reliving the glory days, and besides, my hand were full of sniveling boy.
So I did the only thing I could do.
I said, “Come on, mate. Let’s get you home.”
We got his things together, pushed his wooly hat onto his sweaty head, and we walked through the cold night to the car, holding hands in silence, listening to the cheers and the whistles fading behind us.
In the car I said, “How are you feeling?”
He gave a little smile and said, “Hungry.”
We went home for tea.
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