By Kate Haas
My four-year-old son stands on our neighbor’s lawn, holding a purple plastic baseball bat over his shoulder, his eyes alight with excitement. As far as I know, he has never picked up a bat before.
“Throw me the ball, Mama!” Nate calls.
Reluctantly, I put down my book, get up from the porch and pluck the whiffleball from the grass. I toss it in his direction; he swings and misses. Confusion clouds his eyes.
“Keep your eye on—” I stop. This phrase cannot possibly be emerging from my mouth. I try again.
“I mean, uh, just keep watching the ball, and swing the bat when it comes near you,” I manage. It feels like an awkward attempt at a foreign language. I toss the ball again. Thwack! It sails over to the next yard. He does it again the next time, and the next. He hits that ball with the bat all afternoon. I am no judge of these things, but my kid appears to have a knack for baseball.
To some, this would be a cherished scene of parenthood: the proud mother, the eager youngster, the wholesome passing on of the sporting tradition. Not to me. The thing is, this isn’t my tradition. People in my family did not play sports. Readers all, we regarded athletics with a combination of bewilderment and disdain. We didn’t join teams or wear uniforms, and to this day we remain completely indifferent to anything whatsoever concerning professional athletes. When I was growing up, it was understood that the sports section of the newspaper went directly to the trash. My siblings and I got plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood, but gym class was the bane of my school days.
I was picked last for every team in P.E. I daydreamed in the outfield or talked with the other bookish outcasts. When the ball came my way, I avoided it. Team captains groaned when I came up to bat but I endured their scorn with fortitude because I knew my cause was righteous. They might have been popular and cool, but my strength was as the strength of ten, not because my heart was pure (it wasn’t) but because I was a reader.
As a reader, I knew what was important, and hitting a ball with a bat was not it. Nor was throwing a ball into a basket, kicking a ball into a goal, hurling a ball at another person, or doing sit-ups. Kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, wielding power wisely: these were the values I had gleaned from reading. Values which (as anyone with a claim to human decency will attest) are conspicuously absent from most P.E. classes.
The party line held that participating in the boring, arduous, and unpleasant activities of P.E. would confer indispensable benefits later on in the Real World. I doubted it. Did Lucy engage in sit-ups before opening the wardrobe door into Narnia? Hardly. True, Narnia wasn’t exactly the real world, but it felt a whole lot more real than the one I lived in. The world in which mean, loutish boys who could throw a ball received the acclaim of peers and teachers, while bookish, uncoordinated girls like me were (at best) objects of pity.
Having to throw a ball around when I could have been happily reading a book made me grumpy and miserable. But after twelve years of sports-induced misery, I escaped to college— and just like that, it was over. It was hard to believe at first but gradually the reality sank in: No one was ever going to make me run, jump or throw a ball again for the rest of my life.
As the years passed, unmarred by forced basketball, dodge ball, or even badminton, I mellowed somewhat on the sports issue. With the wisdom of age and experience, I was willing to concede that not everyone who enjoys sports is a mindless adherent to all that is worst in American culture. Some of these people, I now understood, actually find athletics as vital to their happiness as reading is to mine. Some of them are my friends.
I did not, however, expect to give birth to one of them.
At first, there was no cause for alarm. Simon, my older son, was just as attracted to all things beautiful as he was to chasing a ball. After he spent the summer of his fourth year wearing a dress, I figured my future involved schlepping the kid to and from play rehearsals and cheering him on at debate team events, a prospect I relished.
I don’t recall exactly when I realized that my younger son didn’t seem destined for the life of an introspective poet. It could have been when, at fifteen months, he hurled himself down the playground’s twisting tube slide—the same slide Simon didn’t venture on until the age of three. It could have been right after he turned two, when a stranger watching my uncannily agile little boy maneuver around the climbing structure asked, as so many had before her, with an awestruck expression, “Is that your kid? How old is he?” By the time Nate climbed onto a bike (without training wheels) at age three and took off down the sidewalk with the confident balance of a pro, I could no longer deny what was perfectly plain to everyone else: this child was a born athlete.
My older son’s delight in books had thrilled me. “That’s my boy,” I thought with pleasure, when Simon begged for one more chapter of The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the thrill of recognition. He was my boy, after all. I had never doubted that my children would inherit my love of literature. My husband, a biologist, took it for granted that they would be at home in the woods. (They were.) My husband is as indifferent to sports as I am, so watching Nate in action fascinated us both. How had we produced this astonishing little dynamo?
More disconcerting than Nate’s athletic abilities was the pride I felt as I watched him climb, pedal, and race his way through life. I could hardly take credit for Nate’s physical fearlessness, yet I was absurdly pleased each time someone complimented me on it. I did my best to conceal this. “Yeah, well, God only knows what he’ll be up to at sixteen,” I’d answer wryly, shaking my head as Nate hurtled past on his Razor scooter. Isn’t he amazing? I wanted to shout. But how could I? Hadn’t I scorned this sort of thing my whole life?
Perhaps it’s precisely because Nate’s action-oriented nature is so foreign to me that it captivates me so much. How can I help rejoicing in the fact that my child possesses something so uniquely his own? I never expected my kids to be carbon copies of their parents, of course. But that one of them has a talent for athletics is delightfully exotic. Watching Nate’s intent, joyful expression as he does anything physical, I feel like the discoverer of some foreign land. And maybe, I’ve started to believe, living on its borders will be pretty interesting.
That thought isn’t always easy to maintain. Lately, parent after parent has been prophesying my future with “a kid like that.” “Just wait till soccer practice starts ruling your life,” they say, knowingly. In the view of these seasoned parents, soccer practice and its accompanying, weekend-devouring games are simply a force of nature, like a tsunami; there is no option but to be sucked under. Even a mother I knew to be a fellow reader could offer no mitigating vision of the future when I protested that this wouldn’t be happening to us.
“Yeah, I thought the same thing, back when I was a vegetarian who read books all weekend,” she told me. “And then I had these boys. Now I’m eating hot dogs at the games and organizing the practice schedules.” She laughed merrily, as though this transformation from bookworm to soccer mom was simply one of life’s delightful ironies. I shuddered. I love my son, but watching a weekly soccer game—even with him in it—has all the appeal of an afternoon at the DMV. (Will the other parents despise me for reading on the bleachers?) Of course, it’s possible that a similar transformation will occur in my case, too. Could it really be as simple as: My Child + Soccer = I love watching him play? I suppose I’ll find out.
Still, the prospect of soccer momhood troubles me far less than the thought of how sports culture may affect my son. Sure, I enjoy the sight of Nate careening around the neighborhood on his bike and scooter. But when I picture him in a uniform, on a team, I flash back to high school and its rigidly segregated hierarchies. What if loving sports turns my son into a jock? Someone who looks down on everyone not similarly gifted? Someone who—God forbid—doesn’t like to read? It may well be true that team sports build character. But the characters of the male athletes at my high school were all pretty much the same: arrogant, entitled, and—how to put this—less than literarily inclined.
My husband has three words for me whenever I go on one of my tirades about the conformist tribal rites of Little League and the dreadful possibility of raising a mindless jock: Get over it. Growing up in our household, Nate will know full well that kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, and wielding power wisely are more important than winning any soccer game.
Of course, there are those people—several of my friends among them—who claim that sports can be the ideal venue to transmit these very values. The part of me still mired in adolescent hostility toward high school jocks wants to argue this notion. But the rest of me, the part that really knows better, can’t help conceding that my friends are right. I’ve heard their stories, after all: the fidelity to teammates, the sense of justice acquired through learning about fair play, the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal. I may have found P.E. unpleasant and pointless all those years ago, but I realize that my experiences are just that: mine. Many of my friends credit participation in sports with everything from shaping their characters to preserving their mental health, and I have no reason to doubt them. (Didn’t books do the same for me?)
As I listen to them, I realize that I want what they are describing for Nate. Not sports, necessarily, but something they and I shared, readers and jocks alike: a passion.
I’ve long believed that I’m a reader because I was raised by readers in a house full of books. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have reader friends whose parents kept the TV on all day and barely read to them. They found their way to the library, just the same. Perhaps our love of reading, like Nate’s apparent talent for athletics, is more a gift than anything to do with our upbringing. I don’t know whether Nate’s love of physical activity will be the thing that sustains him over the years or whether some new passion will be revealed. Whatever it turns out to be, that joyous dedication to something is what I really want for my son.
I see it in him now. I watch him speed his scooter around a corner, his body leaning effortlessly into the curve, his face intent and deeply happy. I recognize that expression; I’ve sensed it on my own face often enough while reading. It’s the look of someone absorbed in what he loves, caught up in the unselfconscious enjoyment of his powers, a simple moment of transcendence.
Author’s Note: At the skate park recently, a teenager watching Nate in action turned to Simon. “Your brother’s a rad little dude,” he told my seven-year-old, admiringly. I’ve sometimes wondered if Nate’s natural derring-do might ever be a source of tension between him and his more cautious older brother. But Simon reported this compliment excitedly, obviously thrilled to be addressed from on high in skater lingo. I was thrilled on his behalf.
Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
Brain, Child (Fall 2007)
Photo by Scott Boruchov