Spring Track 2015 began on the third day of March.
On that day, the roads of Concord were dangerously narrowed by high banks of snow, and the athletic fields were buried beneath four feet of the stuff. At 3:30 that afternoon, with outdoor temperatures hovering around freezing, baseball, softball, tennis, lacrosse, and ultimate Frisbee teams met in the school gym, in the wrestling room, and in the squash courts. The fifty kids who had signed up for Track and Field team, about half of whom had never done track before, congregated in a cramped space on the third floor and began the process of becoming a team.
Who knows what went through their minds that first day. What did they think it would be like, and what did they expect to do for ninety minutes? As I recall, we did a few activities to break the ice and learn a little bit more about each other. Then I talked — probably too much — about what they should expect and what was expected of them. And at some point we divided into the distance runners and everyone else. The distance runners headed out for a short, chilly run. I stayed with the others, and we made use of the limited indoor space as best we could. Eventually we migrated to the main atrium of the building where we engaged in a variety of drills and exercises. It was a lively half hour that would earn me a scolding from the Athletic Director, who perceived that we were disrupting pedestrian traffic and making too much of a racket. After the distance runners returned, we reconvened and everyone did a core strength workout, using every square inch of floorspace available.
That seems like a long time ago.
In the weeks that followed, we watched the snow finally melt, and we observed months of bitter cold give way to day-after-day of lovely spring weather. The buds came out on the trees, followed by honest-to-goodness green leaves. Instead of ending practice in cramped indoor spaces, we stretched and did strength on the grass of the quad, in no hurry to leave.
As in every season, there were surprises. The novice freshman girl who tried hurdles one day and showed an unexpected knack for running (not jumping!) over barriers. By the end of the season, she would finish second in our league meet and become the second-fastest hurdler CA has ever had. The 100/200 sprinter who finally relented after my constant urging that he try the 400m, and ran a 52-split in a 4×400 relay. The kids who found homes in unexpected events, and came to practice every day begging to throw the discus or practice triple jump or run intervals.
And there were disappointments, too: untimely injuries, illnesses, and conflicts that kept kids out of our final meets. Always in the background, there was a feeling that we were running out of time. If only we had had more time and had been able to give the kids more attention, then we’d have been able to fix that long jump approach, work on that glide in the shot put, correct that release angle in the javelin, fine-tune those relay exchanges. In the final few weeks, I began to buckle under the weight of my own expectations that we needed to address all of those things, and more.
Thankfully, the team developed its own internal support system. The older kids taught the younger ones. The captains took on more and more of the logistics at meets and practices. In almost every event, we had two or more kids working together, encouraging and helping each other. Most importantly, they were excited for the meets, and up to the very end, wanted the season to continue.
Now, two-and-a-half months after we had begun the journey, I was driving a mini-bus full of kids back from our final meet of the season. As I focused on the driving, I listened to the sound of happy teenagers enjoying each others’ company. I was sure that they all had homework to be done and papers to be written, but those things could wait. For the moment, it was pure bliss to be together, sending snapchats to each other, singing along to pop songs on the radio.
As I tried to soak in their happiness, I found myself struggling to reconcile feelings of success and failure. I thought about what I had personally been through, and was almost embarrassed at how much time and emotional effort I’d expended on what is supposed to be a part-time job. I wondered whether I’d be able to steel myself to do it again next year. Many of the kids said that they don’t want the season to end, and I felt guilty realizing that for the last two weeks I’ve been counting down the days until I could shuck all my responsibilities and indulge in afternoon runs again, instead of watching these kids have all the fun. I also felt terrible for all the things I never got around to doing, and the things that I did in a half-assed way. There were kids who deserved a lot more attention from me. I knew it, I saw it, but I didn’t give them that attention. Opportunities missed.
But overall, I did a good job, right? Overall, the successes outweighed the failures, didn’t they?
No one but me would be able to answer that question, but as I made the final turn through East Gate and pulled the mini-bus up in front of the Athletic Center, I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to answer it for some time, maybe never.
The sun has already set as we started unloading the bus. The lights of the campus were coming on, and a few students were passing by on their way to Saturday night activities. Some of the track kids hurried off to other obligations, or headed over to the main gate to wait for a ride home from their parents. But a small group of diehards lingered. These were boys and girls, young adults, really, who had stuck with me and the team for several years, and who weren’t quite ready for all that to end. I wasn’t quite ready, either. For all of the feeling of wanting to be free, I couldn’t quite bear the thought that this was it, and that I wouldn’t be able to coach them anymore. It got darker and darker as we told stories, relived moments from the season and from seasons past.
I’ve never been very good at good-byes and these good-byes feel especially hard. We’d spent a lot of time together over the last few years, and there didn’t seem to be good words to sum it all up. “Thank you,” we said over and over. “Thank you” for everything. But even then, we couldn’t quite bear to leave.
It was getting dark. The mosquitoes were coming out.
Suddenly we heard a hissing sound and a moment later the sprinklers came on. In a matter of seconds, we were all wet, fleeing the streams of water that were targeting us, our gear, and the open windows on the side of the mini-bus. We all rushed in different directions, grabbing backpacks and bags, jumping into the bus to get the windows closed, escaping the torrent.
Sopping wet and laughing, we said a final good-bye and scattered for good.
Sometime you know when to say when, but just don’t want to say it. It sounds like when when you are writing.