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It was the first day of sixth grade. Everyone showed in his or her new clothes and shoes. As Nathan looked around admiring everyone’s spotless shoes and freshly pressed shirts, he wondered if they all went through the same painful production of school shopping as he did. He liked getting new clothes, but did not enjoy the process. Trying on jeans at JC Penny - having to parade around in the store while a bunch of strangers watched on as his mother checked the waistline of the pants to see how well they fit – this was not his idea of a good time. But as he sat, proudly, in his desk wearing his new Levi shorts and Nike polo shirt, it somehow made all of that pain worth the struggle.
So, the first day of sixth grade was underway. The students went through the normal first-day-of-school routines. They got their desks and books and learned whom it was they would be sitting by, like it or not.
Mrs. Hoskinson was Nathan’s teacher. She was fairly young compared to the rest of the teachers at Bentwood Elementary. She was a tall, slender woman with long, dark wavy hair. She wore dark, wired rimmed glasses and spoke with a slight lisp. Mrs. Hoskinson had a lot of energy and seemed very excited to kick off another year of teaching sixth grade – greeting each student as they entered the elaborately decorated classroom.
Every color of the rainbow was represented, and then some. Bulletin boards covered most of the brick walls; chalkboards took care of the rest. A massive calendar outlining the entire school year was the center of the south wall. Nathan found it daunting to look at; they were only on the first day – there were several boxes to check off before it would be time for another summer vacation.
The beginning of this school year was a little different than what other years had been like. Nathan was more nervous than usual, not only because he didn’t know what to expect or make of the idea of playing on the seventh grade football team, but also because something had changed. He had changed and frankly, he didn’t really understand what it was all about or if he liked it.
Something had happened to him over the summer, something that comes into a young person’s life and does things to the mind and body that, up to that point, seem unimaginable. It was puberty. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been all that bad, but when school started that fall Nathan began to get the impression that he was the only boy in his class that had received a visit from puberty.
Nathan noticed that the world appeared different at the onset of puberty. A person starts to care about things that hadn’t even mattered before – like what he looked like to others. Nathan’s sense of his relation to others in the world had heightened. It seemed he couldn’t go anywhere without wondering what everyone around him was thinking – especially if it might be about him – and he usually assumed it was.
Nathan’s class was standing in the hallway on a bathroom break. They had spent about an hour listening to and reciting classroom rules and were excited at the opportunity to stretch their legs, bathroom or not.
Nathan patiently leaned up against the wall next to David and Aaron. Aaron Lender was a short, spiky-haired kid who had moved to Bentwood a couple years prior to sixth grade. He would never be the brightest one in the class, but he was a funny kid who everyone seemed to like. Aaron had a sort of childish curiosity about him that gave the impression the he might never go through puberty.
While David was trying to contain his excitement for what would come later in the day, Aaron hollered out while pointing at Nathan, “Whoa! Dude, look at your legs!”
“What?” Nathan was kind of worried wondering what Aaron was talking about.
“They are so hairy!” Aaron was ecstatic.
Nathan instantly regretted wearing shorts. He didn’t know what to say, “Oh…well…yeah…”
“That’s so crazy,” Aaron said with a chuckle of disbelief.
Nathan realized that Aaron seemed to actually wish he had as much hair on his legs, but Nathan didn’t feel special at all. He just felt different.
“Whatever, you have some too,” Nathan tried to take the attention away from his own legs.
“But not even close to what you have. You look like a wolf with all that hair, dude!” Aaron exclaimed.
“Alright, let’s head back to the room,” Mrs. Hoskinson announced.
Nathan was the first to make a move. He wanted to get out of that uncomfortable situation. During the quick walk back to the classroom his mind was a constant stream of worries.
Why did he have to be the different one? There was hair growing in unspeakable places and worst of all – on his face. Over the summer he had come to learn that he was not a fan of this fur that, if left to grow too long, made his face look like the back of a duckling. However, it seemed that several of the other boys in his class appeared to be jealous. They seemed to obsess over the new hair on his face and legs.
Nathan sat at his desk and pretended to enjoy being the circus display, throwing in an occasional half-smile and even a forced chuckle from time to time, always attempting to change the subject in the hopes that his body hair wouldn’t continue to be the topic of the hour. Until someone would pull the hair – then he had to put a stop to it. Nathan didn’t want to have hairy legs – he wanted to be like the rest of the boys in his class. There were beginning to be lots of things he didn’t understand. Why this puberty thing was happening to him and no one else was just one of those things. Aaron spent most of the first day of school comparing the amount of hair on Nathan’s legs to his own, while these comparisons were going on Nathan felt fairly uncomfortable. Not because of the attention, but because he was getting attention for being different.
So, the desks and books had been assigned, and they had recited the classroom rules so many times they no longer needed to look at the bulletin board to know them. It seemed all that was left of the day was to wait for the minutes to tick away until it was time for Nathan to kiss his childhood goodbye. Gone were the days of going home after school, turning on Duck Tales and enjoying a snack while he debriefed his mother on the events of the day - his days would no longer end at 3:10 p.m. That day truly did seem like an eternity for Nathan. He had no idea what to expect when Mrs. Hoskinson bid his class farewell and he belonged to the seventh grade football team.
He would soon find out and so would his fellow sixth grade comrades. They huddled up outside of their classroom while the girls and the boys who elected not to play football made their way to the buses. Nathan watched them in envy thinking about how lucky they were to know what the next few hours of their lives had in store for them.
While his envy of those students grew, he was again second-guessing his decision. Why was he doing this? Why was he joining this team that, at the end of the day, he really had no desire to be a part of? The truth was that he didn’t think he had much of a choice. There was an overwhelming expectation from his father (albeit unspoken) and from his friends, and frankly from the people of Bentwood - that this is what Nathan and his friends were supposed to do. After all, they were the cool kids, they were the jocks in their class. It was up to them to play football and suffice the needs of their fathers. Nathan knew that if he did not play football he would forever be a failure in the eyes of his father. And he didn’t want to even think of what his friends might think of him. So, he hid every ounce of hesitation, put on his I-can’t-wait-to-play-football-face, and joined his friends.
Once they were all ready, they made their way through the hallway from the elementary wing to the junior high/high school wing of Bentwood school. They all seemed a bit nervous, but none of them were willing to admit it. They proceeded in silence, some with a blank stare that evaded consciousness. Nathan had no idea what to expect – all he knew was that he was supposed to be excited and feel privileged that he was allowed to join the seventh grade team as a sixth grader.
They continued in their herd, down the hallway to the boys’ locker room. This was a small school, so the locker room was for all boys in grades seven through twelve. Now, Nathan had been in the locker room several times before, it was connected to the gym which he was in everyday for physical education class. Mr. Henry, the physical education teacher would, from time to time, ask one of the boys to go in the locker room to get something from his office or some sort of equipment from a storage room. Nathan was often called upon to go by himself or with a friend and so he was very familiar with the space and didn’t find it intimidating at all.
The locker room itself was a massive room. Well, Nathan thought it was massive at the time, but as he got older he realized it wasn’t that big. The walls were lined with caged lockers – floor to ceiling for senior high and half the size on the junior high side. There were benches in front of the lockers as well as rows of benches in the center of the room for team meetings. The shower room was off of the east wall and was big enough for eight. There were various storage rooms and offices located down a long hallway which joined the locker room at the southeast corner and lead to the gymnasium.
Nathan’s contentedness with the familiar space instantly changed when he and his friends opened the door and what they knew as the locker room had turned into what resembled a scene from one of those out of control prison movies. Teenage boys filled the place to capacity, some towering over others at what seemed to be eight feet in height, while others were not much taller than the sixth grade pipsqueaks that stood in the doorway watching. Heavy metal music blared through the room as random objects flew through the air, often smacking someone in the head, receiving a cheer of victory from a corner of the room. Nathan got the impression that the only way to communicate was to yell (necessary to compete with the music), and he most likely learned more colorful vocabulary in those first minutes of stepping into the locker room than he had up to that point in his life.
They stood in the doorway in their sixth grade huddle, not knowing what to do, trying as best they could to maintain their innocence. An eighth grader, Ben Jensen, walked up to them, “I hear you guys are gonna be playing on the seventh grade team.”
One of the boys responded without looking up, “Yup.”
With a smirk, Ben chuckled and said, “Well, you know we practice with the seventh grade team, so you guys better watch out or you’re gonna get the shit kicked outta ya.” He returned to his corner of the locker room, made a comment to some other eighth grade boys, and they all erupted in laughter.
Nathan could sense the stomachs of his fellow sixth grade brethren begin to twist and turn. The fact that they really had no clue what they were getting themselves into was becoming clearer with each passing second. Nathan again began to question this whole thing in his head. Were they sure this was a good idea? Why was it always up to his class to bail out the class ahead of them? It felt like they had been doing it since we started kindergarten. Was one of them going to get killed by one of these eight-foot creatures?
Much to his relief, none of the sixth graders were killed that day. It turns out that they didn’t do much of anything with the exception of receiving their equipment and uniforms. Nathan’s existence was safe for at least one more day.
He sat outside of the school with Tom Sanstad waiting for Tom’s dad to pick them up. Nathan and Tom lived very close to each other and often shared rides. Tom had been one of Nathan’s best friends for a long as Nathan could remember. Tom was a good-looking kid, with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. His mom was a teacher at Bentwood, which sometimes proved difficult. Kids would occasionally direct their frustration with Mrs. Sanstad at Tom, which clearly wasn’t fair. He was lean and already had a jaw line that most men would die for.
While tossing a small rock across the street Tom said to Nathan, “So are you excited for tomorrow?”
“What’s tomorrow?” Nathan seriously had no idea what Tom was talking about.
“Oh! Yeah, should be fun,” Nathan tried his best to fake enthusiasm. For a second he thought about being honest, but he couldn’t.
“Yeah, I’m not sure yet. It’ll probably be fun, but we’ll see.”
In a few short seconds Tom had eased much of Nathan’s anxiety. All he got from the conversation was that he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t quite sure about this whole thing – and that’s all he needed.
Nathan arrived at home that evening to an extremely excited father. Gary Sherver was a big football fan; one could assume that he had started a countdown on some calendar the day Nathan was born – counting the days until he would be able play football.
Nathan walked in the door and plopped down the uniform and equipment he had received earlier. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with most of it, but he figured his father would – and if not Mr. Henry would definitely help him. He was slightly energized by the enthusiasm his father had as he saw all of the football equipment. Nathan wondered if his dad was actually interested in something he was doing? Nathan assumed that his father would be excited about him playing football, but he just wasn’t used to receiving his attention, let alone his father being excited about something in his life.
Nathan began to pull the various pads out of the bag and arranged them on the floor. As he did, his father was instructing, “That’s a knee pad, which will go in the pocket in the knee of your uniform pants.”
Oh really? was Nathan’s first thought to himself, but he didn’t want to say it, potentially destroying any hope of his dad wanting to help him. So, he pretended to not be annoyed by some of the obvious statements and his lesson in football gear continued. They sized up the shoulder pads, put all of the pads in his pants and girdle, and even fitted his mouth guard. This was perhaps the longest conversation Nathan had had with his father to date.
The last thing to be pulled from the bag was his jersey. It was his first official team football jersey, number fifty. He held it up for himself, but more importantly his dad to see. It was black with orange trim on the sleeves. The white number was sewed on with orange thread and outlined with thick black and orange trim. Nathan was proud of it and hoped his dad would be as well.
“50? What the hell does he think you are going to do with that number? You can’t be a running back with that number.” Mr. Sherver’s words quickly changed the mood in the room from one of excitement to disappointment.
Nathan dropped the jersey into his lap and held it close. He just sat there, looking down into the black mesh material. The material that he just knew would make his dad proud. The material that he thought would finally help his dad to notice him and give him a reason to be proud of Nathan.
He wanted to cry, but harnessed every ounce of strength he could find within himself to not. His jaw was clenched; he knew he couldn’t look up, for fear of losing the control of the tears.
“Well, we’re pretty much done here. I got stuff today,” Mr. Sherver said in a soft, apathetic voice while standing up and leaving the room.
Nathan’s father was a running back in high school, and from what he always said, he was pretty good. Apparently, his assumption was that Nathan was going to be made a running back, in sixth grade. However, Nathan was not a running back. He was a lineman. He was one of the few, if not only, boys who had started puberty. He was growing and was much bigger than most – he had to be on the line to protect them – that was his assumption anyway.
Nathan sat there on the floor for several minutes, holding his jersey, fighting back tears. All he wanted was for his father to like him, and he felt like he had just ruined another opportunity for that to happen.
The next day was the first day of real practice. The process of hauling their football equipment around wasn’t exactly convenient for Nathan and his fellow sixth graders. You see, sixth graders didn’t have a locker in the locker room. This meant that they had to haul all of their equipment home every day and bring it back the next. So they not only had their regular school bag, they also had a gigantic equipment bag to keep with them all day long and then drag through the busy hallway at the end of the day to the oh-so-welcoming locker room to change.
Finding space to change in the locker room was the next challenge. Though it appeared huge when empty, the space was not big enough to support junior high and senior high football players and their equipment – add a bunch of little sixth graders running around and the result is chaos in a closet.
Nathan was able to find a little spot in the corner in which he was able to begin the process of transforming from an elementary student to a football player. He was going about his business changing into his practice uniform, sharing stories of the day with some friends, when Ben Jensen, the infamous eighth grader who successfully scared the young new football players to the core the day before, came over and began to try to show them, and perhaps his peers, that he was cool (because he could pick on sixth graders).
“You guys are so fucking stupid. Why do you carry your equipment home with you every night?” Ben chuckled with his two sidekicks while Tom and Nathan looked at each other with confused amazement.
“We don’t have lockers, we don’t really have a choice,” Tom responded.
Nathan added, “Don’t you remember being in sixth grade?”
Ben began to laugh as if Nathan had just told the funniest joke he’d ever heard. He turned to one of his followers and said, “Did you hear this little squeaker? I bet he’ll sound like that forever – what a freak!”
Nathan’s heart rate shot up as if he had just ran a sprint. He had reached a whole new level of embarrassment and wanted nothing more than to not be there. Puberty had moved his voice to an extremely unpredictable stage and it had been known to make a few excessive squeaks from time to time. This was not something that was unique to him. He wanted to tell Ben that perhaps if he had started to go through puberty he would understand what just happened, but since he was in eighth grade and still sounded like a girl – he clearly had no idea.
Instead Nathan said nothing. He said nothing and everyone went back to getting ready for practice. None of his friends said anything; he wondered if they even knew how much it stung. Ben and his sidekicks walked away and Tom changed the subject.
Something had happened. For those few short seconds Nathan felt more different from his peers than he ever had in his life. He had felt different before, just as everyone has more than once in his or her life. He started puberty way before the rest of his friends – that certainly made a person feel a bit odd. But this feeling of being different was much more severe than that. In those moments during and after Ben’s comments Nathan felt completely alone – he felt as though there wasn’t a human being on the planet that could possibly understand what it was like to be him.
That moment was very important in laying the foundation of understanding that Nathan would come to have about himself and about others. From that moment on, he was no longer a little boy – he was well on his way to becoming the person he would be and discovering just who he really was.