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April 09, 2012


Lucas-rugbyForensics and instinct: eventually you learn to trust both. The physical evidence: a crumpled up piece of paper in the bottom of his backpack. The gnawing feeling: he stuffed it down there on purpose. I uncrumpled it, read it, read what he'd wrote on the line at the bottom, sighed, called his name. 

"What's this," I said. Not a question. I knew what it was - it was a Behavior Report. "Oh, it's nothing," he said, and tried to grab it out of my hand. "Here's the thing," I said. "It bothers me that you got in trouble in class. But that we can deal with - maybe you were tired, maybe you had a bad day, whatever. What really bothers me - in fact, the reason that you're about to get in a lot of trouble - is that you wrote this." This being the word that was written on the Parents' Signature line, in big, blocky, 2nd grade boy letters: BETH. 

It didn't take but a second for me to figure out what the consequences would be. "You don't get to play rugby this weekend. You're benched." His eyes went wide. "Yep," I said. "Lying is something that we. Do. Not. Tolerate." 

His sobs carried deep into the night. 

Practice, two days later. Some forty kids running, shoving, passing. Everybody does everything on a rugby team - if you can't kick, or tackle, or pass, or run, you won't last long. Specialization is for insects and football players. I'd called Graydon, club president and coach of the older boys, the night before. Told him my plan for Lucas. He agreed heartily - a big affable South African, he exclaimed that it's EXACTLY what his parents would have done, because that's rugby, and in rugby discipline and character matter above all things. And then I asked him a favor. As we headed back to the car, I waved at Graydon, who was working with the 12- and 14-year olds on a rucking drill, sending a ball carrier crashing into a teammate holding a tackle pad, having that carrier go to ground while the other boys formed a defensive human dome - the ruck - over him. "Lucas!" Graydon yelled. "Come here!" Lucas looked up at me. "Go on," I said. "Coach Graydon wants to talk to you." I didn't know exactly what he said, nor did I want to - the jist of it, of course, was plain, as Lucas' shoulders slumped and he looked at the ground. Then Graydon blew his whistle and yelled "BALL!" One of the older boys tossed him the ball, which he then handed to Lucas. "Ok boys, Lucas is taking the ball for this round," he yelled. Lucas instantly straightened. "You know what to do?" The other boys had 10 inches and 20 pounds on him. Lucas nodded, crouched, dropped his shoulder and ran straight into the pad, going to ground in textbook fashion, presenting the ball while his teammates thundered over him. When he emerged from the bottom of the pile he was grinning. Like a rugby player.

Game day, and the ride to the field was done in silence. We pulled into the lot. "Listen," I said. "This is going to be difficult. But here's what I think you should do. I think you should tell your teammates the truth - that you got in trouble, and because of that you won't be able to play. And then when the game starts I think you should be on the sidelines cheering them on as loud as you can. It will be hard. You don't have to do it, but I think you should." No response. We walked over to where his teammates had gathered; they were goofing off, knocking into each other, making fart noises, the usual grabassery that occurs when the coach isn't around to regulate. "Circle up!" They did. When he spoke his voice seemed small and huge at once. "I messed up and I got in trouble so I can't play today but I'll be yelling for you guys to win, and maybe I'll help coach or something." He looked at me. I nodded. The game unfolded, and he yelled and yelled, only asking to go in once, and when I said no he yelled for his teammates a little louder. I don't recall the final score.



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