A couple of days ago, a line of Varsity football players barreled into my classroom.
I’ve been known to offer encouraging journal writing times before big game days. Friday was a huge game day. The league championship was at stake against a higher ranked team. I thought they might have been there to ask to write with me.
They weren’t there to write.
They were uncharacteristically quiet, this group of boys. Shuffling their enormous feet. Smiling funny.
“Guess what,” one of the guys finally said. “We get to pick one teacher to be with us on the field for Friday’s game and we pick you.”
“You get a jersey,” he said. As if he had to convince me to accept.
So it turns out that during the last home game of the regular season, the senior Varsity football boys get to choose one teacher at our school who has supported them the most to stand with them for the coin toss.
Somehow the Varsity boys thought of me.
I accepted the honor. I wore my fancy new home jersey on game day, and got my hair done and my nails painted blue for the big night. On Senior Night, the senior athletic trainers, cheerleaders and Varsity players are announced and walk the length of the field with their families. The moms wear their sons’ jerseys.
“Whose jersey are you wearing?” a mom asked. I looked down at my number. 65. No boy’s number.
When it was my turn, I stood on the field, and it was bright and overwhelming. I had no idea what to do. Someone handed me a bouquet of flowers.
One of the guys, a young man who writes really nice essays and also happens to be one of the most powerful high school football players in the country at the moment, told me not to worry. He took my hand. The captains and I crossed the field to meet the referees and the other team’s captains.
“Thanks for doing this,” he said as we walked the line.
“It means the world to me,” I said, wearing a jersey I didn’t earn except by love. Because these boys earn their jerseys. They weight lift, they train all summer, they work. The most I can bench press is—I can’t even complete that sentence. I’ve never bench pressed anything in my life.
Whose jersey was I wearing anyway?
I have a private answer to that question, one that only occurred to me Friday morning. Out of my overwhelming gratitude for these boys an old memory shimmered to the surface. I counted years. I counted again, to make sure I was right.
You see, in my mid-twenties, I lost a baby I deeply wanted to miscarriage. One appointment, there was a heartbeat. The next time there was none.
My husband and I grieved intensely and privately. And briefly. We already had one awesome daughter. In five years, we had another awesome daughter. Our little family has been blessed with good health, the love of friends, stunning good fortune. We have very full lives. Beautiful lives.
Yet in a very quiet, still, solitary place within me I have held the memory of that one I lost. I believed early on that he was a boy. A friend of mine who suffered several miscarriages suggested that naming him would make me feel more peaceful. I did as she said and it has. My sister-in-law who also experienced lost pregnancy shared that she always thinks of her never born baby as an angel who is always with her. This idea helps me too.
Through the years, I’ve wondered how I would ever have managed to raise a son to be strong yet kind, powerful yet aware, brave yet generous in the tumult of this millennium. What a daunting task that would have been. How to raise men in times like this? I’ve written three novels with young male protagonists navigating a culture that condones, and even encourages male violence, just trying to consider that very question.
Here’s the thing about the loss of my second pregnancy: the love I had for the baby-to-be stayed with me. It grew.
I teach rhetoric and composition. If you’re thinking the scene in my classroom looks anything like one of those inspirational teacher movies, stop it. I spend my days nagging other people’s kids to write and revise and for the love of God keep up with the reading.
My students have their own moms. Their own moms are amazing. They don’t need me to be Mom. They need me to remind them to avoid passive voice and to please keep up with the reading.
But the love I had for my baby that was never born never went anywhere. And last week, the week of the day when a line of tall, strong, shy, kind boys invited me to stand on the field with them before their championship game, would have been the week of that baby’s eighteenth birthday.
Whose jersey was I wearing? I was wearing the jersey of all of the young men entering adulthood at my school who play and live with wide open hearts. Their work ethic, spirit for fun, and love for their teammates inspire me more than they can know.
I hope that if I would have had my boy, he would have been just like them.