Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The end of the innocence (but not yet)

I came home from work the other night in a hurry. It was a little before 6:30, and we had our end-of-the-season party for Jack's soccer team starting at 7. I'm the coach, so I of course wanted to get there on time.

As I rushed into our bedroom to change clothes, I saw Jack sitting at the computer playing a game. He turned around when I came in, and you could literally see the twinkle in his eyes. What he said made me want to hug him.

"I'm so excited for our party!" he told me, and you could see he meant it, too. "I told my friends at school all about it!"

These end-of-the-season parties are, you understand, not elaborate affairs. I reserve a pavilion at one of our city parks, and the parents and kids gather there to munch on pizza and desserts, drink lemonade, and enjoy one last evening together before going their separate ways for the summer.

We also have a little program where I call the kids up one at a time, talk about what good players they are, and present each with a signed certificate awarding them with a unique title. For example, one is deemed "Most Valuable Offensive Player," while another might be "Ms. Versatility" (for the girl who plays all of the positions well) or "Most Improved Boy."

I gave Jack the "Iron Man Award," which I bestow each year on the boy who plays the hardest, always gets up when he's knocked down, and gives his all each and every time he's on the field. We have the "Iron Woman Award," too.

But Jack didn't know he was going to get that particular honor. All he knew was that he was going to be in a place where he and his soccer friends could eat junk food together, play on the playground, and just enjoy being around each other. And he was openly, genuinely excited at this prospect.

I'm sure there was a time in my life when that would have thrilled me, too, but it has been so long that I can't remember. My 6-year-old couldn't wait to get to the park, though, and my heart broke for him.

That may not seem like a particularly heartbreaking moment, I realize. And right now it's not. But I know that in just a few short years, getting excited about a soccer pizza party is going to be the farthest thing from cool, and that the 11-year-old version of Jack will never walk around school telling his friends how excited he is about it, lest he run the risk of being made fun of.

I understand that, and I certainly lived it myself many years ago. But part of me still wants to hug him. Part of me wants to hold him tight for just a few seconds and whisper in his ear, "Don't ever, ever lose that enthusiasm. Don't ever let anyone else tell you what's worth getting excited about and what isn't. Don't ever let the rest of the world dictate to you what's cool. Because you know what, buddy? You're right...soccer pizza parties ARE awesome."

Come to think of it, I will tell him that. And he'll agree with me, I suspect, though there's probably no avoiding the I-just-want-to-fit-in-and-not-be-different years that are coming. Virtually all of us go through them. The trick is coming back full circle and eventually allowing ourselves to be whatever we want to be, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says.

That night, if only for the 90 minutes the pizza party lasted, that was the lesson I learned from my little boy.

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