I don’t talk about this much, but there is a plaque of me hanging in the Wisconsin High School Track and Field Hall of Fame. It’s near the back, so you may not have seen it on any of your visits. The plaque, which features a bronze relief of me in Freshman year of high school, commemorates my place in history as the runner of the “Worst Race Ever.”
It was an indoor track meet, our first of the year, on one of those tracks made of shredded up car tires. I, as a runner who lacked both speed and jumping ability, was trying my hand at high hurdles; 10 hurdles 39” high set over 110 meters intended to be run with great speed.
I had worked for weeks on my form, my left leg pointed straight ahead and my right curling behind. The trick is to jump over the hurdle, but only just, putting most of your leap into lateral movement that will carry you into a three step run before the next hurdle. So, the race was about speed, jumping, and rhythm. I also do not have rhythm.
I hit the first hurdle squarely with the bottom of my left foot. It fell, as it was designed to. Had I just kept my form, I may have been fine, but the threat of falling made me bring my right foot down too early, where it tangled onto the bottom of the hurdle and sent me skidding on my hands and knees across the spongy black track. When I stood, the next hurdle was now too close, so I had to take a few steps backwards (not the recommended direction while racing) in order to get enough speed to clear the second hurdle and, hopefully, regain my three-step rhythm.
Again, I knocked over the hurdle, and again, it knocked me to the ground as I tried to scramble over it. By the time I stood up, the other runners in my heat were all crossing the finish line. I had eight hurdles to go.
By the time I finished, only one of my hurdles was still standing and I had fallen completely to the ground on five of them. My coach was there to meet me, pull me to the nearest wall where I could drape my arms over my tire-scrap-filled-knees and cry from embarrassment (and quite a lot of pain). The coach, working hard to get out of there before too many people linked his coaching to my running, patted me twice on the back and said, “hey son, at least smart phones haven’t been invented yet,” and walked away.
Shortly after, I joined Drama Club, hoping to never feel that way again.
I started teaching, and every year, sometime around the beginning of May, I would remember that freshman kid staring down the last two hurdles of a race that should have been over long ago.
I’ve run this race for fourteen years now and never run it cleanly. I always end with busted knees and new scars. I’m always exhausted, every year, tired straight through my chest.
Even so, this year is different, as if every hurdle I knocked down was then tied to me before I tried at the next one, collecting more hurdles as I ran, the weight and tangle of it all pulling against me so that standing still feels almost impossible and those last two hurdles are looming ahead from the spot of my most recent fall.
I’m excited for the end of the year, and worried. I’m worried that when it ends, the weight of it won’t disappear, but will instead crash over me.
So many things went wrong this year, that happened or didn’t happen, that were harder or impossible, that were painful, or demoralizing, that were gutting in a way that was unfamiliar, sharper, more lasting.
I’m not ok, not whole. I’m bad at acknowledging that and even worse at doing anything about it. I know I keep hearing calls for how we need to use this summer to catch up, to re-build and re-imagine, to apply effort and hours to problems we’ve already dragged with us through the year.
We aren’t going to fix all of what broke this year over the summer. A lot of it isn’t even finished breaking yet. We do, all of us, teachers and students and families and school leaders, need a break, some healing.
I can’t imagine what it will take to recover, to heal after this year (except I’m maybe-probably going to do this thing with Alex Venet (even though I really really don’t want to sign up for anything that may interrupt my crying into my knees time) because it seems like it would be good for me.) I know I can’t do more hurdles, not yet.
I promise I’ll be ready to run again in fall, even if I can’t yet imagine how that will be true.