My first experience at James Blair was Pre-Algebra class with Jamal Oweis. I was homework adverse, but never crushed by the first year teacher. Could it have been because I played sports? High school allowed me to know Coach Oweis in the tumultuous times of whatever varsity sports was becoming. Through the madness, he treated me with respect and a careful prodding coaches must use with average kids playing in small ponds. Each year I ask Jamal if he will accept my late homework. He answers, “No,” and adds that he doesn’t want to change the grade. Thanks, Coach…
There are times when we all need to understand that our father’s can be bad asses. We need to see that their manliness can be summoned for righteous purposes. We need to see that they are not snoring corpses who don’t know anything about anything, but we all need to know our father’s are strong and still have a bit of the caveman DNA that protects us from lions, tigers, and goats that got set loose in a marijuana field.
I got to see my dad in all out John Wayne one night. “Williamsburg was humid that evening,” my friends. Come to think of it, Williamsburg is always humid in summer. My friend’s mom dropped us off at Blow Gym on William and Mary’s campus. We were there to play racquetball. Coincidently, my father had just finished playing and was hanging out on the stone wall that separated the inside of the campus from Richmond Road. He looked tired and worn out. To a thirteen year old kid, he looked old. Given that I was in junior high school and therefore knew everything, I was pretty sure that I could outrun my father without a problem.
He sat there in cut off jeans and a white T-shirt wiping the sweat away from his graying hair and rubbing knees beaten up by a blue collar life. The other guys there were also policemen and one was on-duty, but dressed in plain clothes. Again, I thought that there was no chance these guys could stop a small caper and forget about running down a major criminal.
Through the heavy air came a young dude striding in typical William and Mary preppy clothes from the time. His Polo shirt with the turned up collar gave him an air of prosperity, but the three police amigos saw something different. They saw a drug dealer who had been ordered to stay off campus, yet there he was carrying a satchel and walking towards a dormitory.
What happened next may have been the most important part of my childhood. My dad turned into a linebacker with the speed of Usain Bolt and the hops of a champion high jumper. He and the other policemen jumped the five-foot fence and went after the Nike wearing preppy drug deliveryman. Before they were out of sight the trespasser was on the ground and being cuffed. My old, tired father was the first to make it to the dealer. He took him down quickly and with the help of his mates arrested the criminal. His bag had a some hash, some acid, and plenty of weed to raise the dopiness in the dorm by more than a little. Oh, and there were no guns needed in the arrest.
Through the hazy night air, I got to see that my dad, while not someone who would use that kind of discipline at home, was capable of putting a hurt on me if necessary. Some might think that kind of observation is sad since it’s based in a bit of fear. I kind of like it because my father was never one to be tough or physical at home. I knew, though, that he could do whatever was necessary to restore order, even in that advanced age of late thirty, early forty something.
As my birthday comes around and I’ve long since passed the age that my father was when he was tackling drug dealers, I’m having two thoughts. The first is that my son, who is twenty, better think twice about jumping on my back in Staples because I’ve still got enough left in the tank to take him down. The other thought is that I don’t want any part of my dad. I’m not sure if I could win that one.
Parenting is hard, especially when there are two growing boys and both parents are working rotating shifts. Somebody told me once that, “Parenting keeps you young.” An older lady who was sitting next to us chimed in, “No it doesn’t. It makes you tired.” Somehow, though, most of us feel a need to become parents and despite our best efforts things do not always work out in the favor for Parent of the Year awards.
December in Williamsburg is an iffy time of year. Sometimes the air drops to around a temperature that might allow for snow. Fortunately for Williamsburg and its snow removal budget, the temperatures stay warm enough only to cause a cold rain. So was the case one evening when my brother and I waited like angels for my mother to come home from work. We played nicely, cleaned up around the house, and made sure that all of our homework was done.
The truth is a bit messier as we were only in elementary school and had no ability to think beyond the next minute of wrestling, arguing, or the simple fooling around that brothers do. My mother was coming home from a boring day of work, a kitchen bereft of any food, and the idiocy of two sons who had been cooped up for the last two hours because of the cold drizzle outside.
“Let’s go get pizza,” she said as she took account of the prospects for a relaxing evening.
This was great. After being stuck in school and our apartment all day, a trip to Olde Towne Pizza was about the best thing ever. We walked in and the smell of cooking pizza wrapped around us taking every bit of cold from our insides. We went with pepperoni and a pitcher of Dr. Pepper and waited for the deliciousness to be delivered.
Music in December can be an iffy prospect. Olde Towne Pizza had the juke boxes in the booths back then. For a quarter you could punch the buttons and wait for your favorite song to play. Evidently, someone had robbed a Brinks truck that was full of quarters and they were in the restaurant programming the music. Two songs took turns playing. The first was “Magnet and Steel.” The chorus went, “You are my magnet and I’m your steeeeeeeel.” It was cringeworthy. The second was The King, Elvis Presley, singing “Blue Christmas.” Baluooooooe, Baluooooooe, Baluoooooooe…
The music made it seem like it took forever for the pizza to come. All the while the two songs assaulted our nerves in a way a Bisquik pizza never would have. The Olde Towne pie finally arrived and I could not tell you if we even tasted what we ate. Truth is, I think we might have gotten it boxed and made a mad dash through the rain for our car. I don’t think I ever ate there again despite the pizza being good. Take out was okay, but risking the juke box made eating there a no go.
Recently, my dog and I were riding down the highway listening to something on the satellite radio when an old tune came on. I write this sheepishly, but I sang every word of that song. “You are my magnet…”
How do I get my students to learn like that?
Alvin Cauthorn opened the James Blair gym one day to let people play. I showed up and no one asked me to play. I didn’t know the routine of getting into a game. After sitting for a couple of hours, AC came over and told me I needed to speak up if I wanted to play. He told me what to do and how to do it. That was an important day for me because I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. The next two years on his team would be some of my favorite teams. Thank you, Coach.
“Um, hello, is this Chris Hancock?”
Said the voice,
Soft as velvet and raspy from living well.
“Yo, Heard, what’s up?”
Thirty years were gone, but I was in tenth grade again,
My old, yes, still older, mentor,
Was putting in a call.
We laughed about early practices
And getting stuck in one on one.
We laughed harder about Maurice who was
The police, prosecution, judge, and jury
In pre-practice study hall court.
Then it got sappy,
Because that year was so important to us,
Because Heard had let me in
Making sure I never felt alone
Or out of place with my difference
From the rest of my brothers,
Who, treated me better than I’ve ever been treated.
They made me earn their respect.
They allowed me to appreciate everyone.
They were all more important than those who weren’t there can understand.
We endured sprints.
We survived a Thanksgiving practice.
We spoke about being there in moments of tribulation.
We spoke of hanging at each other’s homes and
Our families accepting us because we made it clear
We were friends and that black-white bullshit wouldn’t be tolerated.
“You know, you were like the only white kid on the team,” said Heard.
That was kind of true,
Although that first year there were three of us.
Two quit, playing time disputes I think,
But whatever, I was a skinny kid with brown hair then,
Sitting at the end of the bench
Hoping to get a couple of minutes of court time in practice
And maybe even a few seconds in a game.
“It was cool, though, Heard. I loved being on that team.”
I don’t know what the color of ONE is.
I suppose it’s somewhere between blue and gold
Because black and white came together
Under the uniform of Lafayette High School’s basketball team that year.
We won some, we lost some,
Not getting as far as any of us thought we should have,
But for me, the life lessons were more important than any win,
Any Monkey drill, or all the splinters I picked from my butt that year.
Thanks, 22. (Say that loud and enunciate the two’s with gusto and respect!)
Two years would follow,
The lessons being the same
The shared experiences being the same
Man, I miss that…
Really, everyone, thank you.
Summer vacation is necessary.
I know parents hate how long it is,
But I can’t wait to recharge
And learn a few new things during the hot months.
This year summer offered a chance to coach basketball.
I dug out my old memories
Of motion offenses and started thinking.
What defense will we play?
How about pressing?
Pressure is where it’s at,
Turnovers win in high school.
We will get after it
Taking the game to them old school,
How about conditioning?
No monkey drills,
I’ll take what I can
From my old coach.
Some strategy, some practice ideas
I hope the guys become a team like I knew.
Allen looked at Frank with a skeptical eye. “Who’s watching?”
Frank answered carefully, “At the retreat Ralph Hanby asked me to keep an eye on things. He wanted to know stuff about the high school.”
“Ralph Hanby? The same Ralph Hanby who…” started Allen.
“Who what, Allen?”
Sometimes our mouths get ahead of our judgment. Allen’s mouth had rushed far ahead of his thinking. He nearly said that Ralph Hanby had been the board member who forced Allen to send Frank to counseling. Because of his position on the school board, Hanby had access and authority to get what he wanted from the school district. Most board members respect their position, but Hanby recognized opportunity and felt emboldened by his power.
Allen decided to tell Frank. “It was Hanby who complained about you to Dr. Russell. He wanted you to be fired, but Dr. Russell stuck by your side.”
“Stuck by my side? Right. A girl makes up a story and I end up going to counseling. It was humiliating.”
“Better than getting fired,” joked Allen.
“Allen, I swear to you, I never asked her about her birth control. She offered up that she was using it so that she could miss class. I let her go to study hall and then I asked her guidance counselor what was going on. Her guidance counselor was the one who called the parents. Not me. I did nothing wrong.”
“I believe you, Frank, but Hanby was putting the clamps on Dr. Russell because his daughter who is a friend with the girl said you asked her if she was taking birth control. Dr. Russell had to do something to get Hanby to back down.”
Frank shook his head. For all the talk of the school district being a community and family, Frank’s experience had been that of a disowned child. The experience felt like a chunky rock being dropped on his foot. The pain radiated, but eventually went away. The memory, however, was recorded deeply in his ability to believe anything that was said about how the teachers, administration, and community were all in this education thing together. Hanby was a roadblock to Frank feeling trust in school again.
“Well, it would seem to me that if he didn’t get me fired and that’s what he really wanted, revenge might be on his mind. You and Dr. Russell let him down. Since he probably thinks I would rat you guys out, he came to me for dirt to use against you. I’d say his is doing more than watching.”
Allen was used to being the conniving one. Being on the defensive was something knew for him. He liked to think that he was the offensive person in most social situations, something Frank would have agreed to, but in this case he was caught off guard. There had been rumblings that the board was dissatisfied with the achievement gap between the lower socioeconomic groups and the upper crust kids. There was also a growing frustration in the community about the lack of success with the sports teams. He wondered if these could be reasons for Hanby to approach Frank. He also wondered if it was worth engaging Hanby at all.
“So what are you going to do, Allen,” asked Frank.
“Are you going to say something to your girlfriend?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend?”
Frank chuckled, “I mean, Dr. Russell.”
“Do you think Hanby would go after her? Should I say something to her?”
“Allen, you do what you want, but I think Hanby is only thinking about Hanby. He wants to present himself as a community minded person. He has shown that he only thinks for the things that benefit his kids or his close friends. You need to make sure you account for every invoice, keep all of the chrome polished, and figure out how to make this PIOUS thing seem like a true innovation.”
“Or what?” asked Allen.
“Looks like counseling for you, son. I know a place with great rates.”
“Yes you do,” said Allen. “Will you keep me in the loop if Hanby gets back to you?”
“Sure, but I’m playing both sides. I may even talk to the union just in case. I don’t feel good about this.”
Allen extended his hand to Frank, “Deal and I agree with you. Something isn’t right.”
Frank shook Allen’s hand and said, “I wish I could just teach.”
Imagine being dressed in a bumble bee colored baseball uniform in late April on a Saturday and standing outside a grocery store. Add to that being the idiot who wore baseball cleats instead of sneakers and you can imagine me at ten years old doing Tag Day for the Williamsburg Youth League. Tag Day was sanctioned begging and tugging at the guilt laden weaknesses of anyone bold enough to carry change. Wait, that was nearly forty years ago, we all carried change. I hated Tag Day, but I also hated sitting the bench. I knew that my coach, God save his imprisoned soul (I’m bitter about that), would have taken playing time away from anyone who did not show up for Tag Day.
Basically, we stood for two hours in front of the grocery store by the Martin Cinema and asked people to drop money in our little containers. I’m a poor conversationalist with the people I know really well. I’m ridiculously poor at speaking with strangers, so going up to shoppers and asking them to make a donation for our league was way beyond my comfort level. I probably brought in less than ten dollars that first year. My begging partner was ridiculous. We were classmates and sat next to each other in fourth grade. I was the new kid in school and he seemed like the shy kid, but he raised so much money. It was sick the way he would get people to give him money. There wasn’t an ounce of begging or salesmanship in his request. He just had an aura. It would serve him well in centerfield and wherever else that magic was needed.
Three years of begging got us through battles as members of VFW Post 4309. We were competitive and cockier than we should have been. Those were some good years…
The end of my sophomore season was tough.
Being on the team was a special experience
And I felt like we were a team,
But with the end came the distance
And we moved on.
My man, Heard, was off to college
And I’d miss him because of the way
He looked out for me
And because he didn’t make fun
Of me listening to Toto on the bus.
The next year would be just as great
Although real life would creep into our team
When Troy started to get sick.
We would miss his smile
And the way he brought us together with that easy way.
Senior year was hard
Playing and not
Wrestling with loyalty and frustration
And giving in to the end
When the season was over.
I was done playing basketball,
Regulated to intramural and pick up games
Where I did okay until
I tried to keep up with Eddie Jordan
Right after his NBA career was over.
All the guys went their ways
And somehow we never crossed paths
In the Colonial Capitol
Until just a year ago
At a football game of all places.
Jip was wondering where my girth had come from
Mostly the dinner table, truth be told,
Chris was talking like he never stopped and
Our last conversation was nearly thirty years ago.
My old carpool partner, Randy, was quiet as ever.
I was right back on the team
Ready to do as much of a monkey drill
As my belly could handle.
I wanted to go back to the days
The practices, the bus rides, the study halls…
Many a coach
Waxes on the benefits
Of common goals and the life lessons
Learned when people compete
On a team.
Many a poet
Writes eloquently of the rewards gained
When a man tests his mettle
In the struggle of physical effort
And competition against others.
I like to think I’m both
Coaching once again
And hitting these keys in the Han-ee style of free verse,
Looking back, both the coach and poet
Have it right.
My time playing high school sports
Oozed plenty of sweat,
But more importantly squeezed from me
All environmental influence of the times
About who people are.
My teammates were friends
People to go to battle with,
People to break bread with,
I learned that opportunity comes in uncertain ways
But gift horse or not, opportunities should be taken
Because the world is a tough place
And it matters little who you are
Only that you seize the opportunities when they are presented.
I learned how fickle experience can be
One moment making life seem easy and fun
The next swatting at an ego with Tyson like efficiency.
The essence of competing is struggle
And learning to manage the experience is how we get better.
Coaches will rant, poets will weave stanzas of ahhh
And both know why sports participation is important
Learning to struggle brings us together
Creating bonds that cannot be understood
In isolated phone and tablet bound postures.
I owe a great deal to my coaches
Who set the laws that I learned to follow.
I owe a great deal to my teammates
Who showed me no favor, but allowed me to be part of the gang.
So are my lessons from basketball at LHS…