Throw the Damned Discus

When she was in the sixth grade, Mack came home from school one day and announced, “I’m going out for the track team.”

“But you hate running.” I said.

“I’m not gonna run,” she replied, looking at me as if I was crazy to think was going to run.

“But people on track teams run around a track. That’s why it’s called track,” I said.

“It’s track and field, mother. I’m gonna high jump and throw discus. In the field,” she stressed, annoyed.

I skipped over the high jump part, because, yes, I thought she could actually probably do that, she did possess very long legs. But I looked at her noodle arms and her lanky and un-muscular body, and I did not see any comparative physical quality in my twelve-old-girl to the thick-set, muscled discus throwers I had seen in the Olympics. Yes, it is true, I went from zero (six-grade track and field) to 100 (Olympic-caliber discus throwing) in .3 seconds flat.

“But you don’t know how to throw a discus, do you?” I asked, confused.

“No. The eighth graders will show me.”

“But have you ever even held a discus?” I asked.

“No. I will at the tryouts, though,” she answered, looking at me like…duh.

“But…um…do you think you’ll be able to throw it very far?” I gazed at her noodle arms again, and even thought about poking where a bicep should be. Mack looked up at me curiously, with no furrowed, worried brow on her sweet freckled face as she, I suppose, prepared her response to my ridiculous questions. And then she absently shrugged and ran up to her room.

As Mack’s mother at that moment, I had been full of worry and fear that she would fail. I mean, just look at what an unsupportive ass I was employing all of those “buts” in my discussion with her! As Mack’s mother now, however, I am filled with wonder at my daughter’s matter-of-fact approach to living. She wanted to be on a spring sports team with her friends, and since she did not enjoy running, she chose high jumping and throwing the discus instead. She had no idea if she could do either one. “What the heck” and “why not” were her mantras, and questions like “what if I can’t do this” or “what if people see me fail” did not hold any sway with her.

This discus-throwing decision was not a moment in Mack’s athletic life when she knew going in that she would be good at something new. Rather, this was a moment in her life when she was going to try something new even though she might not be able to do it. Whereas I failed to see Mack’s discus-throwing potential and worried she would fail, Mack thought it was ridiculous to be worried about an outcome that, either way, would be perfectly fine. I also failed all those years ago to see the life lesson my little girl was standing there in my kitchen teaching me. She was not afraid to try something new not so much because she might enjoy it and might be good it. Rather, Mack was not afraid to try something new because she saw no shame in the failure to succeed at something new.

On Wednesday, I am going to throw the discus. Well, I am going to try something new, something that I may or may not be good at. I am going to begin teaching a six-week writing class for an adult, continuing-education program in suburban St. Louis. I want to become a part of a community of writers who share their joys of writing and their struggles with the craft of writing, and for me right now in my life that means teaching. I have taught history and I consider myself a writer, but the teaching of writing is a whole new thing for me. The old me would have been terrified at such a risky prospect.

However, for the past week, as I have finalized my syllabus, gathered my readings, prepared my writing prompts, and thought about all of the things I want to share with my first small group of writing students, I have also spent much time thinking about the sixth-grade Mack and her attitude about throwing the discus. “What the heck” and “why not,” I keep saying to myself. I want to do this, I’m going to give it a try, and I refuse to be terrified (although I am just a little bit scared). I do not want to be that fearful mom who stood in the kitchen all those years ago injecting doubt in the form of a whole lot of buts. I want to be the sixth-grade Mack, ready to throw the discus no matter how far the damn thing might go. Mack did not worry about how it might turn out, she worked hard, and she became a pretty good middle-school discus thrower. Channeling her, I will try not to worry about how far the teaching might take me, I plan to work hard, and, hopefully, I will turn out to be a pretty good first-time writing teacher.

Anyway, it is far too late to be terrified. This new thing of mine is in motion, and I intend to face it with the resolve of a sixth-grader who sees no reason not to try something new and no shame in the outcome, whatever that outcome might be. Besides, Mack is now standing in the peripheral vision of my memories cheering me on from behind the fence: “Just throw the discus, Momma Bear, and everything’ll be alright.”

P.S. My daughter Savannah, who is a bleeding-heart, not-for-profit, liberal-arts-educated young woman, just started an executive MBA program at the University of Illinois. Talk about not being afraid to try something new! Here is the great big giant truth of my life, people: I have learned more from my two girls than I could ever have dreamed of teaching them. I just wish I would have started letting them teach me a whole hell of lot sooner.

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This is the 8th-grade Mack, by then an experienced discus thrower, competing at a track and field meet at Southeast High School in Springfield, Illinois.

Hoosiers and a Hedge Maze

In the summer of 2004, Mack was a ten-year-old rising fifth-grader playing on a competitive basketball team with girls who were a year older. After a schedule of local games in Springfield and a few area tournaments, the Sonics ended up in a regional tournament at Indiana University. We were happy to give Mack a serious basketball experience and excited to enjoy a simple, summer family getaway as well. But it was one of those crazy years that the Illinois legislative session continued well into the summer; so Kevin, who covered Illinois politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was unable to leave town with the girls and I on Saturday, July 17, for the drive to Indiana. When I pulled out of the driveway that morning in our brand new Honda Element, I had no idea that this little trip to my native state would be such a significant one. That trip gave Mack an experience that inspired her throughout her basketball playing years, turned out to be a fateful one for Savannah, and conferred upon me a special, memory-making, all-girl road trip with my two favorite people in all of the world.

We spent the first half of that week-long trip in Bloomington, Indiana, wandering around IU’s campus and watching preteen girls play basketball. Mack was so happy and comfortable to be the little kid on that basketball team, and playing at the tournament with them was exhilarating to her. The Sonics lost in the championship game, but Mack was not disappointed. She was such a wise little kid, breathing in the experience, just thrilled to be dribbling with the big girls. She was also honored to be a chosen as a rebounder for a teammate participating in the three-point shooting contest that took place on the Hoosier’s basketball court. Standing on that hallowed Hoosier hardwood was a dream for Mack, and the experience inspired her for her entire basketball career.Sonics3

Savannah, who had not been all that thrilled about our basketball-centric trip when it had started, was inspired, too. But for her, it was not the basketball that offered the spark; it was the lush green and floral landscapes, the Indiana limestone buildings, and the meandering medieval-style walls of the outrageously gorgeous IU campus. As it happened, Savannah was preparing to begin her all-important junior year of high school that fall, and college was very much on her mind. On that summer trip, she fell in love with IU. Had it not been for Mack’s basketball tournament, Savannah might never have considered Indiana University at all, let alone chosen it as the perfect fit. Mack always took a little credit for Savannah’s decision to attend Indiana, arguing on many occasions that all roads lead to the Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

The second part of our all-girl road trip was a bit on the wacky side, but it has remained one of my favorite vacations. We left Bloomington after the tournament and drove south through scenic Hoosier National Forest. Driving through the southern portion of Indiana with my girlies was such a treat, and we all giggled and sang and Mack drove Savannah and I crazy with her bad jokes from the back seat. When we drove through Jasper, Indiana, Mack and I rolled down the windows and yelled hello to Scott Rolen, her favorite Cardinal baseball player, who grew up there. I am not even sure how Mack knew that little piece of sports trivia, but she did; and we paused ever so briefly to acknowledge it. We stopped at Santa Clause, Indiana, just long enough for a photo opportunity, and then we settled in at a resort hotel in New Harmony, Indiana, along the Wabash River. I had promised loads of time in the fabulous hotel pool, some good food, and a movie of their choice (we saw “Dodgeball,” which Mack declared was the best movie of the year). But as usual, I had a little history on the agenda as well.

New Harmony is a tiny, historical town that possesses great charm if you are a nerdy history buff like me, but it holds little allure for kids. Therefore, I had my work cut out for me. We walked around the town center looking at old buildings, and I picked up some tourism flyers and purchased a little book about the historical beginnings of the settlement, founded in 1814 by religious dissidents called the Harmonists. One night after dinner and swimming, I read to the girls about the funky little colony, its quirky residents, and its fascinating history. They rolled their eyes, not even pretending to pay attention, and went back to whatever they were watching on the TV. I left them alone and turned my attention to the tourism materials, which revealed a fantastic, historical secret weapon.

The next morning, I drove the girls to the edge of the town for a little surprise. Apparently, when they established New Harmony, the Harmonists built a hedge maze to symbolize their quest for a better life in America. In the 1940s, the residents of the town rebuilt the maze and restored the little building at its center. When Mack jumped out of the car, she ran as fast as she could to the entrance of the maze and disappeared within it. We could hear her cackling and snorting, and we watched as her cute little head, adorned with her backwards Green Bay Packer hat, bounced up and down as she raced through the maze. It was absolutely delightful for me to see my little Macko romping through that maze, pretending to be lost, yelling periodically for assistance, and having so much fun. Savannah put on her best this-is-so-annoying teenage face, but even she admitted that the maze was lovely. And, of course, once again, Mack succeeded in dragging her big sister into the fun as well, encouraging her to succumb to the absurdity of the three of us in a remote and tiny town in southern Indiana exploring a maze made out of bushes.

We spent a good hour exploring that maze, enjoying the cool-for-summer day, before driving back home to Illinois. It was one of the silliest and most simple things we ever did together, but it remains one of my favorite memories. We had embarked on the trip for a basketball tournament, and we finished the trip with so much more. Mack lived a basketball dream and collected some Hoosier inspiration. Savannah found a college. I had my girls all to myself for a precious few days. And we all felt the magic of a hedge maze.

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