|Year 2000 Award Winner
2000 by Chris Wood
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Each of us has had a fear that plagued us as children, something we were afraid to face and for which our peers chastised us. Some children fear the dark, heights, or ghosts. For me, it was basketball. Growing up in a rural town in Indiana, I was surrounded by the aura of it. One can find a hoop in almost any backyard or at the top of a driveway. Basketball is a religion in Indiana, an eight-fold path of life on which everyone must eventually travel. To the Buddhist there are two kinds of people -- the enlightened and the unenlightened. In Indiana, there are basketball players, and there are Yahtzee players. I fell into the latter category.
Even as early as grade school, boys dreamed of growing up to become professional basketball players. Although the preferred activity at recess was basketball, my friends and I enjoyed climbing the monkey bars. We pretended we were aboard the Starship Enterprise, the name of the spaceship on the TV series Star Trek, and we fought like hell for the coveted role of Captain Kirk. To land such a prestigious part meant you were not only the head of the ship, making all the important decisions in times of crisis, but it also meant you were physically attractive to the opposite sex. Girls watched from the seesaws as we soared through space and did battle with imaginary Klingons, teetering on the brink of disaster. But they paid particular attention to Kirk to see how he delivered the crew from another close call. Vying for the role meant serious business, and when we got it, we played it to the hilt. Nobody took orders from a goofy Captain Kirk.
The captain's deck was on the top bar, where no one but Kirk was permitted. Spock, Bones, and Chekhov claimed the middle, and Scotty's engine room was on the ground. I usually ended up playing Scotty because I could affect a Scottish brogue, but after a while I grew weary of the part and decided to try out for Kirk.
You had to wait in line to play Kirk, and the closer you got to the top, playing other parts along the way, the closer you were to the mother lode of all roles. This was all right by me, as I was scared of heights and needed to be weaned from my fear. I had seen kids fall down before, some of them striking their heads on the bars as they fell, and I wanted no part in that experience. So I began my apprenticeship near the bottom, eagerly anticipat- ing my turn and the way I'd approach the part. I would make Kirk dashing and debonair, but more than anything, bold and determined, afraid of nothing.
Sometimes boys came over from the basketball court to join us in our galactic expedi- tions, but like everyone else, they had to wait their turn to be Kirk. Even if a nerd playing Kirk acted cool, the basketball boys took orders from him. Kirk was the great equalizer, the chance for everyone to be cool for a day. At least on the monkey bars I had the potential of becoming a respectable person, skilled in his craft, who could delegate authority to anyone. On the basketball court, however, it was a different story.
Every school day of my third-grade life, my homeroom teacher sent us to Mr. Starsky's gym class for a half hour. Entering the huge gymnasium was an overwhelming experience to my eight-year-old imagination. The court could be enlarged with re- tractable bleachers that made a loud, clanging sound when they were mechanically with- drawn. The ceiling was so high that I wondered how people changed the fluorescent lightbulbs, and the ten-feet-high baskets seemed like giant abstract birds leering down at us.
Pungent fumes of urine and ammonia, and light glaring off the slippery wooden floor and mucous-green walls conspired to create a bright yet eerie atmosphere. Thuds of basket- balls and the squeaks of tennis shoes reverberated off the steel rafters, sometimes going home in my head. The world of the gymnasium was cold, impersonal, and disconsolate. I may as well have been walking on the surface of the moon when I entered through its implacable doors.
Our gym teacher, Mr. Starsky, was a tall, heavy-set man who drilled us in calisthenics and commanded us to excel at basketball, his red face howling as we drove up and down the court. When we divided up into teams, I was always the last player to be chosen, and even then it was with some reluctance on the part of the team's captain.
In basketball, the name of the game is circulating the ball in search of an open shot. I spent most of my time running from the ball, but whenever it somehow fell into my hands, which always seemed to be by accident, I was quick to release it. It would have been great if the pass were intended for one of my teammates, but the ball often ended up in the hands of the other squad, which usually resulted in a basket. My opponents anticipated this and often told me they were on my team, at which point the ball was readily given to them.
Sometimes, however, I launched the ball up in the air, in hopes of at least skimming the net. But I never accomplished even that. In fact, the ball never came close to bouncing off the backboard. The term "air ball" must have been coined by my opponents in Mr. Starsky's gym class at a small grade school in rural Indiana. But I preferred that to "Miss Miss-em-all," a misnomer ascribed to me by Todd Keating, the classroom hunk, the best basketball player in the school, the kid who made Arthur Fonzerelli look like a nerd.
There wasn't a day that went by in which Todd didn't hound me with that name. It resounded off the rafters for every shot attempt I missed, day after day after day. If Mr. Starsky heard Todd, he never acknowledged it. "Spare the ball and spoil the child" must have been his motto. Plus it made Todd look cool in front of the girls, who liked to watch while we played. Some of them even completed Todd's homework for him. Those of us who finished our own assignments suffered at the hands of those who didn't, and we were often the targets of insults, especially if we weren't athletically inclined. "Miss Miss-em-all" stemmed from this harassment, and Todd hammered the name like a nail into my self-esteem.
This abuse continued for almost a year. Until I'd had enough.
For our final grade in gym, Mr. Starsky told each of us go to the free-throw line and shoot as many baskets as we could in one minute. Todd, of course, made all of his. Even some of the girls fared better than the boys, which made it doubly hard on me. Now I would have to endure affronts to my pre-pubescent male ego if I missed.
When my turn came, students lined up on either side of the lane, chanting "Miss Miss-em-all." Todd coached them from the sideline with his feet propped up, as though he'd just come home from a hard day's work. Mr. Starsky shushed the crowd, so they mouthed the words. You could have heard an atom drop.
My palms were sweating as I approached the free-throw line. Mr. Starsky clicked his stopwatch and blurted his whistle. Without a moment's hesitation, I fired off as many shots as I could. I missed the first one, my second, my third. I missed as many as I could in one minute. Although I wasn't cynical enough at that age to brag about my missed shots, I later realized that if any record was set that day, it was by a little, wobbly-kneed boy called "Miss Miss-em-all."
Mr. Starsky blew his whistle and ordered us to form two lines at the exit doors, which meant it was time for us to return to class. I always looked forward to that inevitable moment, which seemed to take an eternity to arrive. It meant I could leave behind this strange world of ten-feet-tall monsters, slippery wooden floors, and the pall of ammonia. I could finally return to the world of books with all their words and the escape they promised me. At least there I could elude the tyranny of all the Todd Keatings of the world, passing through a portal of dreams that denied them entry.
Todd was always at the head of his line. Anyone he thought was cool was allowed to stand behind him. The dweeb line, the one in which I stood, was a lot longer, depend- ing on who Todd had recently ostracized from his kingdom of cool.
As I passed his line on the way to mine, Todd suddenly wheeled on me and shouted "Miss Miss-em-all" in my face. A roar of laughter filled the gym, and I started back to my line, where I knew I could stand behind a body and not be seen.
But something that day bothered me, and I knew Todd had to pay. Maybe it was the weather or the smirk on Todd's face. Maybe it was the fact that I'd missed every single shot at the free-throw line or the notion that people like Todd seemed to do no wrong. There are people who seem to know every rule in the playbook of life and break it, people who win the lottery or make six-digit salaries or become President, people I would never be and who I couldn't let get away with an insult that would bear my name all my life. I might grow up to become the "Miss Miss-em-all" of an ivy-league education, the "Miss Miss-em-all" of job opportunities, the "Miss Miss-em-all" of a place in history. But on that fateful day, I would no longer play the role of my misnomer. . . .
Today is the day I walk up to Todd and hit him in the ribs as hard as I can. I want him to hurt, to feel the pain I have felt for nearly a year, to let him know I didn't miss the punch. His face reddens, and I brace myself for retaliation. Instead, his green eyes cloud up with tears, but somehow he keeps them in. I realize he can't cry. To do so would betray his masculine mystique. I see more pain in those eyes than I've ever seen through mine, and I return to the end of my line. An understanding has passed between us, an exchange of pain, and his stare follows me with that glare of recognition.
I was never called "Miss Miss-em-all" again. Not by Todd, not by anybody. Todd must have seen to that. The name died away like so many misnomers before it, waiting to befall the next unfortunate victim who couldn't put a ball through a hoop.
A few days later, Todd fell from the top of the monkey bars during recess, hitting his head on the way down. His face turned red, a trademark of his pain. This time he couldn't hold back the tears, and a group of students clustered around him. I climbed down from my place on the bars and tried to comfort him until the teachers arrived. When they carried him away, his red face bobbing, I stood there, watching after them as they faded into a dust cloud.
A cold wind picked up, bringing the wet, mulchy smell of early spring from nearby fields. The monkey bars stood empty, and the playground looked remote and desolate. Swings swung without passengers, and chain nets on the basketball rims shivered in the wind. Alone with my imagination, I climbed aboard the Starship Enterprise. I strove all the way to the top, to the spot Todd left, and I gazed up at the deep blue sky. I was Captain Kirk. I would boldly go where no man had gone before.
Chris Wood is the education and youth director at Theatre Albany in Albany, Georgia, where he lives with his wife Pam. His writing has appeared in SKYLARK, CONCHO RIVER REVIEW, and NOW & THEN.
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