Freshly cut grass smells like humiliation. I can’t be the only person who has aggressive smell receptors. There are certain scents that act like time machines; scents that immediately pick me up like a rag doll and fling me back into moments, places and feelings. For example, there’s a mango bathroom refresher spray that smells like summer afternoons rehearsing for the musical at church. When I smell it, my mind’s eye sees the white tiles, deep purple wallpaper and shallow sinks of the men’s bathroom near the sanctuary. It’s an involuntary synapse trigger that’s as real today as it was nearly two decades ago when I spent so much time at the church. So mango bathroom spray smells like summers at church and freshly cut grass smells like humiliation.
When I was younger, joining the Boy Scouts was something you did to be well-rounded, to volunteer in your community and to whittle pointy objects without fear of questioning. I’d enjoyed my time as a Cub Scout when my father was the leader of the troop, but as the years rolled on, my interest in the all-male pow-wows and tree leaf memorization waned. Going to the weekly meeting felt like a chore, the sort of chore you loathe. For me, the chore I loathed most was trimming the edges after I’d mowed the lawn. Mowing wasn’t all that cumbersome; I’d listen to music from my Discman and sing loudly over the sound of the lawn mower. My mother would tell me the entire neighborhood could hear me and I didn’t care all that much. But after the mowing was done, trimming the edges required extension cords and attention to detail, neither of which I had the mental fortitude to deal with on abusively hot Texas Saturdays.
The night I conceded defeat as a Boy Scout was an evening when the leaders decided we were going to “have fun” rather than split into groups to study knots. One of the older boys, Brett, announced we were going to play tag football in the field behind the small Methodist church where we met every week. This is a game most boys have participated in at some point in their life and is a fairly simple way to kill time in an organized group setting.
Brett—with his gruff voice, mullet haircut and Napoleon complex—was the most obnoxious person I’d ever met and enjoyed talking down to the younger guys in the troop. It was as if he made it a goal to ensure we knew he had more badges than us and that he was a model Scout. I didn’t want anything to do with him, but as he was in charge of the football game, the troop and I headed outside.
Upon arrival at the field of freshly cut grass, the older boys split us into teams. Standing on opposite sides of an imaginary 50 yard line, Brett and his mullet announced that his team was “shirts” and my team was “skins.” I hated him for that. Yes, “shirts vs. skins” is an easy way to differentiate who is on which team and I suppose it was implied that we menfolk were born comfortable with this, all brawn and hormones and man nipples. Perhaps I too would’ve been comfortable had I been on the team that got to keep their shirt on, but I wasn’t. As the game started, I replaced my shirt with embarrassment. I crossed my arms, trying to keep my shame-based self-consciousness hidden beneath them. I ran up and down the field, never fully participating or attempting to make myself open for a catch because I was all too aware that the lumpy bouncing parts of me were on full display.
I don’t know when I first became aware of the issues I had with my body, but I do know it all came to a head during seventh grade. I mostly became aware of it in the locker room at school, inadvertently measuring myself against my adolescent peers. If only teenagers could know that everyone in the room is feeling the same way; we’re all covered in the sludge of curdled self-esteem. Being shirtless at the pool, in the locker room or on this grassy field felt like public forms of punishment, each sowing seeds of self-consciousness that began to sprout upward like Jack’s beanstalk.
Brett played an aggressive game. His version of touch football involved knocking people over to get what he wanted—even if we didn’t have the ball. Repeatedly, he knocked me onto the ground while laughing manically like Sid from Toy Story. As my shirtless body landed on the fresh cut grass over and over, my skin broke out in blotchy fire-red hives. I’d never had a reaction to grass before, so I believe my body was fighting back against the barrage of embarrassment. When I left for home that evening, plump and itchy and red, I chose not to go back to Scouts. I’d paid my dues with years of service and that felt like a natural blotchy break.
The following year, the smell of fresh cut grass reemerged to greet me each morning when I arrived at school for football practice. As I entered the seventh grade, I had to make the decision to either play sports or take a physical education class. Some guys were conditioned to play as many sports as possible just like their parents were conditioned to get too involved at the games. I couldn’t even handle the touch game of football in the grassy Methodist field so why I thought playing organized football was in any way a measured decision is beyond me. Still, the stalks of self-conscious fear overtook me and I chose to suit up in football gear as opposed to being seen in a P.E. class with the “nerdy” kids.
I would sleepily arrive at the locker rooms when it was still dark outside, quickly change clothes into my practice gear and scurry out to practice which started at 7:30. God isn’t even awake at 7:30; he sleeps until around ten for sure. I felt abandoned and alone as I trotted out in my gear which smelled like stale adolescence, only entertained by the clacking sound my cleats made on the locker room floor. The gear was the only part I actually liked. I liked being padded up and looking strong because it made up for how wispy and feeble I felt. I spent most football practices feeling like the mermaids Ursula turned into worms.
I was every bit as awful at real football as I was with the touch variety. I’m not an aggressive person when it comes to physicality—I don’t want to hit and I don’t want to be hit. I’ll admit I can find enjoyment in watching other dudes knock the sense out of each other on a football field, but I in no way want to do so myself. I couldn’t even remember the plays because I was too busy repeating, audibly, It will all be over soon.
Daily, I was knocked on my ass despite my best efforts. It wasn’t that I didn’t try, but I wasn’t created to be a lineman. Once I’d been knocked over, I’d allow my frustration to fuel my adolescent rage, only to get knocked over again. “Come on Brinson!” my teammates and coaches would shout at me, which I also hated. I wanted to run far away, like to the concession stand. The crawly beanstalk of self-consciousness only grew larger and over time it bore giants: Giants of worthlessness, giants of doubt and giants of self-hatred.
Faced with all of this, it made sense to skip practice. I arrived at 7:30 but after my dad drove off, I would scamper around the side of the school to hide inside the band hall bathroom until it was time for my first class. For ten straight days I hid, not realizing how many mornings I’d clocked away from the field.
On the day of our first game, I broke my truancy streak so I would know what I was supposed to do after class. I dreaded every moment of the bus ride to the opposing school, warmed up with trepidation and prayed I’d be shown the mercy of being benched early. In what felt like a victory, I spent only a few moments on the field. I didn’t know what the plays were so I just focused on running into the kid across the line of scrimmage from me. When the ball was snapped on each play, I’d clinch my fists and hurl my body, shoulder pads first, into my opponent. I usually ended up on the ground, various body parts aching from a graceless landing. Once I was home, I reported we’d won and that was that.
A couple days later, I was called into my coach’s office and he told me he’d called my father to explain why I hadn’t played much in the game. This was junior high and everyone got a fair shot, so he explained that since I’d missed ten practices, I didn’t play as much as the other boys. He promised that as my attendance got better, I would play more. This was brand new information to my father who thought he’d been dropping me off for practice every morning at 7:30, before God was awake. My coach then explained that he’d struck a deal with my father and there wouldn’t be any form of in-school punishment for my truant behavior. He said my dad would talk to me once I was home, because that’s what caring fathers do: They cut deals with coaches and teachers so they, themselves, can inflict torture on their children in the name of teaching them a lesson.
I existed in a numb, senseless state for the rest of the day. The jig was up, I’d been found out and now, any number of punishments awaited me. When my bus pulled up to my stop, I saw my father’s car parked on the street. He’d left work early, which in any other case would be exciting, but today, I knew he was basically the raven, ready to “nevermore” me into next week.
When I sat down in his car, he smiled a smile that said, “I own you.” He then informed me that I’d have ten training sessions with him to make up for those I’d missed and the first session started right then. Still in my school clothes, we went to the field behind our house and began my afternoon of running sprints in the blistering heat.
I felt I was at peak-embarrassment, my lumpy, sweaty body galloping around the field in the sun while I cried a steady river of tacky tears, but I was wrong. Every sport has fans in the stands, and this afternoon, I was the main event. My father and grandfather had built my siblings and me a wooden fort in our backyard. It was taller than the fence and from inside it, we could see all over the surrounding neighborhood—including the large field where I was huffing and puffing. Inside the fort, perched like two howler monkeys, were my brother and sister, pointing and laughing. Every now and then, my mother’s head would pop up like a giraffe and it felt like the entire jungle was watching and judging me. I was red from heat and suffocating embarrassment; all of this because I was afraid of being looked at as one of the “nerds” in P.E. class.
Between the morning football practices that felt increasingly abusive to my spirit and the football games that felt increasingly abusive to my body, nine more workouts with Coach Dad took place in the weeks that followed. Pick a field in Coppell, Texas, and I was more than likely embarrassed there during an afterschool workout. When football season ended, angels sang and church choirs had a step-touch praise break in my head. I’d spent the past few months being tackled, pummeled and toppled by boys half my size and I was tired of my pride being decimated on a weekly basis, even if it was my pride that put me there in the first place.
What did not end with the sporting season was the concept of “finishing what you started.” When I was crying and telling my father I hated football and didn’t want to play anymore, he told me I had to finish what I started. Months later, when I hated off-season and lamented about how much I wanted to quit, he told me I had to finish what I started. I wasn’t allowed to only trim half of the lawn even though I hated doing it; I had to finish what I started. No matter how much emotional padding or fortitude we think we have, life can sometimes feel like we are merely a body of bruises, a fleshy punching bag for the other team. My football team didn’t win the championship, we didn’t even make the playoffs, but after my rocky start, I finished the season with the rest of my team. That was the lesson. Even if you feel like you’re running endless laps in the heat, following through to completion matters.
In high school two years later, I knew better than to join any sports teams. While I still wasn’t thrilled about it, I checked “P.E.” on my class request form and prepared to suffer through whatever the “nerds” had to do for the day. On the first day of class, I discovered my P.E. class period was the same hour when the special education kids took class. Our classes would be combined and we’d be spending each day with students who had severe disabilities.
One of those students was a boy named Corey. He was 19 years old, his speech slurred due to a mild case of cerebral palsy and when he spoke, he involuntarily spit like Daffy Duck saying “Mississippi.” The tallest boy in the class by a wide margin, he had Autism and was a jovial larger-than-life personality. He was quick to learn all of our names and in the first week, he began sitting next to me when it was time to do crunches and push-ups.
As the weeks wore on, he would enter the gym and come directly to me saying “Hi, Ryan” with a wave before finding his seat for attendance on the 3 point line. He smiled a determined smile as he ran laps or played hockey and I found myself choosing to be his partner when our activity for the day called for it. I didn’t think much of choosing him as my partner. He was a nice guy, never unpleasant to be around and if I saw him in the hallway, he would wave and tell me to have a good day. I don’t know if you remember high school but it’s not a common occurrence to have someone wish you good tidings every day. Mostly, it’s cliques and insecure students trying to finish homework in the halls and get to class on time. But Corey was considerate in a way other students were not and because I’d been given this specific window to spend time with him, I got to see him in that way. Other students saw a young man who didn’t act his age, who had slurred speech and was developmentally challenged. I came to just see Corey.
At the end of the class period, there would occasionally be spare time to shoot a few baskets. This was Corey’s favorite thing to do. He was the honorary “manager” of the Varsity basketball team and he relished every moment of basketball season. After warming up on the court with the guys, he took care of the towels, the water and was ready with a high-five as the players left the court. When our P.E. coaches tossed out a few basketballs, Corey would perk up. His run was like a horsey gallop—each of his giant shoes landing on the gym floor with a thud and his gangly arms flailing about like a marionette doing a tap routine. He’d grab a ball as quickly as he could and begin taking shots at the basket. In the year we spent in class together, I never saw him miss a shot. He could both dunk and make free throw shots, but he could also land baskets from any point on the 3 point line. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. He never missed. His coordination on the court and in life was off, but once he had the basketball, he never missed a shot.
Toward the end of the school year, we had ten minutes left in class one day and were spending it shooting hoops. For some reason, the basketball team was meeting early and stood in the doors waiting for us to vacate the gym. They saw Corey shooting hoops and stepped inside to cheer him on. I didn’t know any of the basketball players so I don’t know if they were stereotypical jocks or not, but on that day, they were Corey’s teammates and his biggest fans. It wasn’t that they’d never seen him make shots before, he warmed up with the team before every game and at practice, but he was on a roll that day making basket-after-basket. It was so impressive, it marshaled the attention of the entire gym.
With every swoosh, we erupted into cheers. After each shot, he would take a few steps back and still, each basketball landed inside the net with ease. The team became his ball boys, tossing the basketball back to him and encouraging him to step back further. He was unfazed by his success, making each shot with a matter-of-fact confidence of an Olympic gymnast.
Finally, he was standing on the half court line, the entire team standing on the sideline alongside we P.E. nerds, our coaches, and random students who’d heard the commotion and stepped in to see Corey shine. He launched the ball across the court.
Now, I’ve never been a part of a championship team before—that’s not a thrill I’ve experienced beyond cheering from the stands—but when that basketball went through that hoop, the gym erupted as if he had just won the State Championship. We rushed the court, jumping up and down, cheering his name. At first, he didn’t understand what the big deal was—this was business as usual for him—but once he realized we were cheering for him, his face lit up and tears poured out of his eyes. His basketball teammates, his coach and his class friends all chanted his name in unison. The celebration went on for so long, we all had to be written tardy slips to get to class.
At the end of the semester, one of the coaches thanked me for being so open to working with the differently-abled students and I told her there wasn’t any need to thank me. Corey had helped me more than I could’ve ever helped him. There were actually students who transferred out of that class period because they didn’t want to be in the same class as the kids with special needs. But they missed out. Second period P.E. was the most inclusive, most welcoming and most encouraging place to be in The Colony High School that year. There wasn’t any space for beanstalks of self-consciousness and there certainly wasn’t room for giants of worthlessness, doubt or self-hatred. We were a diverse team of students, coexisting and learning together.
One of those people who transferred out of our P.E. class to escape the students who “weren’t normal” was paired up with me on a project in another class. She asked me how my “special needs” class was going with a bitchy smirk. “It’s great,” I said. “Corey showed us how incredible an athlete he is the other day.” She giggled and said, smirk still intact, “I’m sure he did.”
There are two ways to deal with ignorant people. You either choose to not let them affect you by ignoring them or you choose not to let them affect you by shutting them down. Both of these tactics should involve love and compassion, but even Jesus knew how to flip a table.
“He did. The entire basketball team was there too. And our class is special. You transferring out of it because of those students makes you a terrible, ignorant person. So don’t smirk at my friend Corey.”
It was a bit melodramatic, but I made my point.
On the last day of class, Corey gave me a hug and told me to have a good summer. I told him to keep up the basketball and he smiled. I didn’t see Corey after that year, but his effect on my life has been lasting. It’s not lost on me that the class I avoided like the plague and feared being associated with wound up being the class where my life and my misconceptions would shift. Corey—a boy with special needs in the nerdiest class in school—became one of my heroes and just by being himself, ensured that was the last time I considered something “nerdy” or different to be less-than.