Every afternoon I was on the infield with some of the best boys the school had. Both the head coach and I were new to the team, and we whipped it into a disciplined unit. Still, I looked up as airliners left soft white contrails in the azure New Mexican sky. How lucky those people were, I thought, to be heading somewhere else and not in charge of bellicose teenagers. True, I was more intense than my athletes were, but it felt important to me that they understood and learned to love distance running, to let it save them, too; they deserved to know. So, I had them do the hellish training that had worked for me. Oh, yeah, they resisted. I insisted. They complained, tried to hide on long runs. How could I get through to them?
So, I ran with them. We went on a six-miler, and as they strung out, I stayed back with the slowest runners. Then, after a couple miles, I ran ahead, boy to boy, like Tarzan swinging on vines, encouraging each boy until I caught our best runner, who’d been far ahead. His eyes grew wide when I suddenly come up on him, which I dug big-time. I didn’t gloat, though, because remember, I was mature by then, a so-called role model. I told him how impressed I was with him and then ran back to bolster the lagging kids. I wasn’t showing off; I was coaching. Really. I figured it would be helpful in terms of bonding if I went through the fire with them; it had bonded me to my distance-running brothers over the years.
Our oldest runner was a kid named Daniel, down from Tijeras Canyon, and the big brother of that kid who had challenged me on my first day, whom I later saw smoking in the parking lot. Daniel was the default leader and led the rebellion against me. He walked away from the team a couple times in protest of the effort I demanded, but the other boys wouldn’t follow him, so he always returned the next day. He didn’t know that I awoke some nights in sweaty nightmares of the next day’s assault. To put this in context: remember that kid with the overbite in the corner of the playground of Mark Twain Elementary? Remember the squinting boy who had his gym shorts pulled down while ineptly trying out for the junior-high basketball team? Remember the spacey, seventeen-year-old freshman at Kansas? That kid was now in charge of a bunch of other kids who had their fists balled up against him. I had to fake confidence, except it wasn’t all fake; other than controlling the boys, I knew what I was doing.
One afternoon, I took the boys up a nondescript hill in the Manzano Mountains. Daniel led the run, so I named it “Daniel’s Hill.” He began accepting the workouts, began leading and encouraging the younger runners, and before the season ended, I’d won his allegiance and made him the team captain. Each season after that—for the next five years—the team became more disciplined, successful, and joyous, and we always included runs up Daniel’s Hill. See, I, having been a little bit like Daniel myself, knew what he wanted: respect. But at eighteen, he didn’t know how to get it other than by screaming at authority.
Sometimes I had the runners stand in a circle on the infield, their backs to me as I stood in the middle. I touched a boy’s hand, which designated him as the secret breakout rabbit. The boys ran a predetermined pace together on the track until the rabbit made the expected move, but it was unknown when the move would occur. Even the junior varsity boys outran the better runners when they were first to make a strong move, to really commit. The lesson was to go for it, to put it out there, go all in, and sometimes it paid off. Try. You don’t have to win, and it’s OK to be afraid, but at least do your best.
The district gerrymandered the boundaries after I’d graduated from Eldorado High School, so my old house on Apache Street was now in the Manzano High district. One Manzano runner lived in my old bedroom. Remember, I’ve promised you this is all true as far as I know. But seriously, what were the odds? So, I asked that kid what my bedroom—his bedroom—looked like now. Was the cork to which I pinned my ribbons, medals, and track clippings still on the wall? Finally, I asked what I really wanted to know. “Does anything weird ever happen there?”
The boy only shrugged, being about as articulate with authority as I’d been at his age. Another runner to whom I was close started in about poltergeists. I interrupted and said it was all made-up stuff, it never happened. Ha, fished you good, Home Slice. Which, of course, was the real lie. I hated deceiving the kid, but I figured that it was better to live with the guilt of a lie than to allow the kid in my old bedroom to live with a poltergeist.
When the Gulf War geared up in 1990, I attended a protest rally down at the university. Remember, I’d missed the Vietnam protests twenty years earlier, but with history repeating itself, I had another chance. Yes, of course, I wore my army field jacket and faded blue jeans to the rally; I was supposed to be a disillusioned-vet-turned-war-protester like Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July. The indignant students, mostly undergrads, were away from home for the first time, trying to be a part of something meaningful and good, trying to prevent an atrocity. But as the speakers onstage ranted, I turned my back to them and observed the crowd; even then, the unrealized shrink in me was more interested in people’s reaction to events than in the events themselves.
Since my peak experience, I didn’t want to kill a communist or any living thing. I even had a bumper sticker that read, “Visualize Whirled Peas.” I felt as if I should leap onstage and do some sort of Abby Hoffman impression. That’d be interesting to write about now, especially considering that Dad had retired at brigadier general, one star, a very big deal, and yeah, still ironic. But the thing was, the more I thought about what I’d rant about onstage, the more I realized that I didn’t want that kind of attention, that those days were over for me. My world had become too complicated, and I very responsible. I realized that my time had passed. To me, onstage meant teaching, not attention seeking. The activists were shrill, and chanting, “No blood for oil!” seemed overly cynical and simplistic. Had I grown too old by my early thirties? Could I not be trusted? The whole scene had the whiff of parody circa 1970. Global and Middle Eastern politics were complex dilemmas. So, I was conflicted: I marveled at the miracle of life and had figured out that love made the most sense, but what do we do when sociopaths and megalomaniacs rule nations? What about the lives we defended? What about freedom? Why had I served? What did I hope for my students, and how do we ensure they at least have choices? I was glad that I wasn’t in charge of the country and so didn’t have to take that responsibility. Jumping onstage would be like catching a drug dealer who’d snatched a purse from a woman who wouldn’t pay him; all I’d be doing was supporting one questionable interest over another. Teaching and coaching teens was enough responsibility for me at the time, so I just went home, prepared my lesson plan for the next day, and worried if, at long last, I’d become a “sellout bitch.”
You’re probably thinking that by “sellout,” I meant that I didn’t leap onto the stage. No. I meant that my same old problem of earning a living and not having enough time to write had reemerged. I trained my runners to break out of the pack and commit, so was I a hypocrite not to write? Writers write, right? We’ll never publish unless we submit our writing, right? That’s what my professors had told me. That’s what I told my students. The platitudes rattled around in my mind as I tried to interest teenagers in A Tale of Two Cities while my own stories remained unwritten.
OK, somehow, I made it through the school year. I wanted to quit every day, but I was determined to finish the year, as I’d signed a contract and didn’t want to desert the kids. But just between us, I was so done with teaching. In fact, when I was offered a position at a different high school, I turned it down, telling the principal that I’d only be doing it for the money. Mom’s teaching-way still didn’t work for me, just as Dad’s military-way hadn’t. Sure, the teaching and integrity parts made sense, but herding unmotivated teenagers? Not so much. It was ignorant of me to be so disappointed that the kids didn’t feel the same as I did about reading and writing, and they weren’t shy about letting me know. I inspired some, I suppose, but not enough. Most just got through my mandated classes and didn’t soar into other worlds or discover the joy of self-expression via creative writing. For the record, I write this with sadness. I did my best as an overwhelmed neophyte teacher, but I wish I had done more and better.
I figured I’d rather be poor than unhappy, a wanderer than a hypocrite, so I took a year off to write, and Renni and I became house sitters. Try to admire me as a risk-taker, not as an irresponsible husband. Renni went to medical school all day and studied late every night, and I wrote all day and coached track every afternoon for an average rate of fifty cents an hour. At my last track banquet, the boys gave me a copy of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner signed by every boy on the team. So, yeah, they got it. Like I said: the best the school had to offer.
Daniel came back from the marines to visit. His younger brother, who liked to play gangster with new teachers, smoke in the parking lot, and whom I never narced out, died in a car wreck. It’s difficult to know when to be strict and when to grant grace. Now I wonder if I would’ve truly saved a boy’s life if I had kicked him off the team.