When the light begins to change in August and kids head back to school, ancient instincts rise within the mind. For those of us that competed in running and the fall sport of cross country, these August days smell and taste of hard effort and tw0-a-day workouts.
It was always confusing to be going “back to school” when cross country always started earlier than the actual school year. There was such freedom in those early practices, running without the burden of classes to hold you back.
Yet the reminders were there. In high school we’d gather in that creaky old locker room and change into our jocks and shorts along with shoes issued by the program. Then we’d head out for a half-hearted stretch on the grass behind the football stadium and go run our asses off for an hour or more.
Down on the football field were the supposed real warriors of the gridiron. They’d be dressed in full pads and grunting through workouts in the heat. At the end of practice they’d pile back into to locker room all sweaty and greased with dirt and we got the hell out of their way.
Joyously we’d pile into the showers after our workouts and sing our way through several rounds of song by The Who, the Doobie Brothers, Chicago or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…and racing around to come up behind you again…the sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, and shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death…”
Little did we know those songs and that period of music would remain at the forefront of culture for the following four decades. Yesterday at our local Panera Bread I watched a kid that was obviously a freshman or sophomore in high school walk in the door wearing a tee shirt from the 70s group Boston. We still see Led Zeppelin shirts and Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Stones.
The more things change
As a result, the kids walking into high schools these days don’t look much different than we did 40 years ago either. That holds true especially for the skinny kids going out for cross country. It’s still the hair flying back, the half-awkward strides and the focus in the eyes that seems to drive these kids along, and always has.
They still tend to come from the bookish end of the spectrum. Last weekend I stopped to pet a dog during the middle of a 12-mile run while my running partners visited the restroom. The dog’s owner started asking about our running, and it turned out his kids ran cross country for the same program I did. “Four of the top five runners are now doctors,” he informed me. “I always appreciated that the cross country team encouraged the kids to pay attention to their grades.”
Well, I wish that could be said for everyone in the program over time. I struggled with some subjects in school due to inattention and flat out stubbornness. So the joy of running always seemed to be balanced by the dread of an unfinished homework assignment or a pending test.
At some point I missed a test on the subject of genetics in Advanced Biology because of an afternoon cross country meet. To make up the test, I had to head out into the hall for a period to take the exam. I knew going in that I did not recall the subject well. My brain did not grasp the Xs and Os of genetics well. I don’t recall if I needed that grade to stay eligible for running but it felt like a lot of pressure at the time. So I fashioned a crib sheet out of notebook paper and brought it out into the hall with me.
There was just one problem. The biology teacher was actually a birding friend of mine and he knew me pretty well. As I sat there sneaking looks at the crib sheet to get answers for the test, he stood behind me watching the process and no doubt snickered at my awful attempt at academic credibility. “Well, if it isn’t the Furtive Nutscratcher,” he finally intoned over my shoulder. I jumped out of my skin and handed over the crib sheet. “I can’t believe you did that,” he scolded. Then he left me in that raw, empty hallway to suffer in genetic distress over my incapacity to memorize certain types of information.
But it wasn’t because I did not like to learn. Other subjects I gobbled up ferociously, and reading was absolutely precious to me. Before one cross country meet against an important team, I was immersed in an amazing book called The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. It chronicled the pursuit of those rare raptors by a denizen of the moors and mountains in Great Britain. That book took my mind off the nerves and I went on to run one of the best races of my life.
That was an interesting lesson in the relativity of thought. What was it about the dissociative power of that book enabled my mind to run so freely? As a generally anxious kid I was often so nervous before races it was hard to control my guts. Yet somehow that day I floated into competition both determined and relaxed.
That was a lesson so important in life that no amount of actual schooling could ever teach it. It had to be re-learned many times, but that’s the nature of many things about human nature. We’re going Back to School all the time.
That inevitably stokes some memories along the way. It’s easy to beat yourself up for having to re-learn some things in life. But then you see those kids with the Boston and Beatles tee shirts on and you realize that it’s human nature to have to make mistakes and learn from them. You can tell a kid (especially your own) a thousand ways what’s the right thing to do and they’ll still go out and screw it up out of sheer stubborn will. And you have to let them do that. We all go back to school every day.
Yet it’s the light and the smell and the feel of August that makes us recall that we’re all alive and going through life at a pace that, while it often changes, also stays magically the same. We are neither faster or slower than we need to be. We just are. And August tells us that every time it comes around. It’s time to go Back to School.