“This is an excerpt and illustration from an autobiographical story I wrote when I was fourteen years old called To Catch a Songbird. I struggled throughout my childhood to feel comfortable in my own skin, and nothing threw me out of my comfort zone more than gym class. Today I’m a happy, confident person, but reading this story resurrects all those feelings of insecurity. I wish I could go back in time and tell the younger version of myself that everything will be ok. Maybe through our work with the You Will Rise Project, I can do the next best thing by sharing that message with you.”
I switched schools in the fourth grade. Previously, I had attended a Montessori school, where I was free to roam the classroom and converse with my friends throughout the day as long as I completed a number of projects by the week’s end. Although an unconventional learning environment, it was very effective.
The shift to a new school was difficult. I had to leave my friends and attempt to make new ones while adjusting to the new restrictions. I grew accustomed to the rules of sitting in a desk and only talking when called upon, but making friends was more difficult for a quiet, shy boy who wanted nothing more than to fit in. This unusual new world seemed to revolve around sports, but being tremendously uncoordinated, I was the piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit.
Gym class was the most distressing. Every time I missed a ball, lost a race, stumbled, slid down the climbing rope, or tumbled sideways when I was supposed to be doing a somersault, everyone laughed. I’m sure they meant no harm in their laughter, but I wasn’t so sure at the time.
We had gym every Monday and Friday, always a time of monstrous anguish.
In the chaos of a grade school kick ball game, I rushed to take my usual position in the back corner of the gym where the ball was rarely kicked. The game went on as usual. Most of the boys rushed to the front, their athletic skill a badge of pride. The majority of the girls seemed content to stay off to the side and whisper about the boys, and then there was me, back in the corner, hoping nothing would happen to bring any unnecessary attention to myself.
Of course, Kirk launched the ball right in my direction. It sliced the air in its path, and swept past the outstretched hands in front of me. I saw it transform from a ball to a missile; an unstoppable, all-powerful force against which no human hands could prevail. Everyone was glaring back at me now with deep, penetrating stares. I attempted to focus on the ball. The little drops of sweat that indicate fear formed at the top of my forehead and trickled into my eyes. It seemed that they too were part of the conspiracy to distract me.
It was just me and the big red meteor zooming down in my direction. There it was. It was descending, almost in slow motion but also incredibly fast. Catch it, I whispered to myself. Catch it. I extended my arms up above my head, and felt the sting of the hard ball in my sweaty palms. Then I felt nothing…nothing but air. My fingers scrambled hopelessly, and my heart sank as I heard the ball hit the ground several feet behind me.
Immediate laughter and then mumbling and then silence.
How I longed to curl up in the corner and disappear.
~Gym Glass, by Paul Richmond