Because of the bond I was developing with Coach, it was a natural thing to go to him one day early in my sophomore year when I had a problem and no one to discuss it with. I was fretting as I was eating lunch at one of the outside tables, and there he was, coming across the quad. So I got up, met him and asked if he had time to speak with me after school. He said sure.
In his office, I wasn't sure how to start. He made it easy by saying, "You look like something's eating at you, Xander. Can I help?"
"I hope so. I can't talk to my mom about it. She'd get angry and cause all sorts of trouble—she's like that, feisty when it comes to protecting me or solving my problems for me—and then I'd have to live with the consequences of that. Subtle she isn't."
I stopped. This was hard. He just nodded at me.
"I talked to my teacher a little about this without going into any details, and she was, well . . . that didn't help. I don't know what to do."
"Well, I don't know if I can help or not," he said, "but often a different perspective will help, and I'm sure I see some things differently from you. You're closer to the problem and obviously personally involved. Tell me about it. We can probably work this out. Oftentimes, situations aren't as bad as they first seem. What is it?"
I took a deep breath. "Okay. In our World History class, Miss Tindler assigned one of those group projects that some of us hate so much. I think people like her do it trying to be matchmakers, assigning popular kids with loners like me, thinking we'll suddenly all be friends. It doesn't work that way. I'll still be a loner when the project is finished. We are who we are, and group projects don't change that."
I was talking now. Coach was good at getting me going. Once started, it was easier to get to the point. "Usually someone takes over in groups like these; he decides what everyone else will do. It's the popular kid who usually does this. In our high school culture, a popular kid can call the shots and no one will argue with him. That's just how it is. So, in my group, that's what's happened. You don't need to know names, but the other three of us got our assignments, got told what we were to do for the group project. He assigned himself something, too, of course, and I was somewhat surprised that he gave himself just as much or more work than the rest of us. Popular kids don't behave that way too often. I was lucky to be in his group.
"Anyway, we were all supposed to come back in a week with between five and ten pages of material on what he'd assigned us. The information had to have citations showing where it all came from. Then, when we had all the reports, we'd go over them and all work together to assemble a final report. So that's what we did. The day before yesterday we got together after school and all brought our pages. We each had made copies so everyone got a full set. I took them home that night and read them all. Everyone had done the work. Everyone had written good papers. We'd be able to assemble a very good final reports from what we had."
I stopped. I wasn't used to talking this much. We were in Coach's office, and he had a small refrigerator. He took a can of Diet Coke out and wiggled it at me. I smiled and nodded. He handed it to me, and I drank half of it.
"Whew," I said. "Okay. That was background. Now, the problem that's eating at me. One of the three reports I read seemed, well, not like the others. It just didn't sound like something a high school sophomore would put together. There were several citations at the bottom, but none tied to individual statements or sentences in the paper itself. I read it over three times, and by the end of the last reading, I'd decided it hadn't been written by the student whose name was on it. It had been a paper taken from somewhere else or had been copied directly from a source.
"So, that's it. I don't know what to do now. I'm not someone who confronts people. Yet I don't see how we can use something in our report that we didn't research and write up ourselves. Grades are important to me, and I think we'd not only get a failing grade on the project, we might even get in trouble for it."
I paused long enough to take a deep breath, to calm myself before continuing. "I don't know what to do. I don't want anything to do with cheating. And, of course, I don't want to be known as someone who tells on other kids. But, too, I don't want to confront the person. I'd probably get a denial, there might be . . . I don't know what. The whole situation sucks."
Coach Dryer had watched me as I'd said all this. Now, he shook his head. "I can see why this would bother you," he said. "It isn't easy. You need to do something, and all options are bad."
"Exactly. I went to Miss Tindler, but without being specific about the problem I was facing, and I found her to be no help at all. I just said there was a problem in our group and asked if I could do a research paper on my own. She said no. She said part of the reason she's assigned a group project was so we would learn to function in a group, something we'd probably have to do sometime or other in our lives. She said if I wouldn't tell her specifics of the problem, then it probably wasn't really all that bad, probably something to do with a personality clash, and I should just find a way to work around it.
"So I'm stumped."
"Tough problem," he said. He thought for a moment, then suggested, "Why not go to the guy who assumed leadership of the group? With leadership comes responsibility. You don't know there's plagiarism involved, but you strongly suspect it, and as he's in charge, you feel it's your responsibility to bring it to him. How about that?"
I gave him a humorless smile. "Great minds think alike. I figured that out, too. But there's a problem. The person who wrote the suspect paper is the leader's girlfriend. You can't tell a popular guy that his girlfriend is a cheat. You just can't. Well, someone like me can't."
He nodded, then swiveled around in his chair and looked at the wall behind him for a moment before swiveling back.
"Okay," he said. "This is something you can use some help with. Some problems are ones that would build character if you'd face them on your own and figure out the right thing to do and then do it. This isn't one of those. So, here's what you do—nothing. Just forget about it, and I'll take care of it. You'll have no more involvement in it at all. Just ignore what you've seen. Go ahead with the project and ignore what you've found. Okay?"
"But . . ."
He grinned, a sympathetic grin. "I'll take care of it. It'll be handled. Just not by you. Unless you want to be involved?"
"Okay then. I got it."
I sat there looking at him for a moment, looking at the inscrutable expression he'd donned. Then I nodded, gave him a half smile that was pretty weak and walked out.
The next day in class, Miss Tindler reminded us all that the projects were due next week. "I always like to remind my sophomore classes that you're in high school now, and your work is more important now than before. Your high school record will be used by universities, and so it must reflect who you are and what you've accomplished in high school. Therefore, everything you turn in must be your own best work. I know there's temptation to scrimp on the work when you have so many other things you need to be doing. I've had students in the past who've copied work from others. They didn't get away with it. In this class, your work has to be your own. I have ways of checking your work against published literature and other source material. I can also tell by reading what you hand in if you wrote it or not; I've been reading student papers for too many years not to know what they look like. Also, by now, I'm well aware of how you all write. So, do the work yourself.
"I'll say one more thing about this. Most of you will have broken your project into four parts and each member of your group will have done the research on their part and probably written one of the project parts. In those cases, if I suspect plagiarism, I'll give the project a grade but also grade the individual parts if they deserve something different from the grade the project earns by itself. That's only fair because individual achievement, or lack of same, deserves individual recognition."
I sat with a stony face listening to this. What I was hearing was Coach Dryer taking care of me. When I met with our group the next time, our intrepid leader proposed we do as Miss Tindler suggested: each write our own part of the project and put our name on it. Then each paper would go in the folder as a separate section of the report. We did that. I was amused to find that the girlfriend's final paper was much different from what she'd first turned in, and in fact looked to me like it had been written by our group leader. The style of writing appeared to be the same for both those sections of the report.
I thanked the coach. He smiled and said he was very glad to have had the opportunity to help me, and he'd always be there for me if needed. And the bond that was growing between us grew even stronger.
I found myself taking the time to talk to Coach frequently. I came out to him when he was talking about the hazing incident and what had happened. I'd been curious about what had happened, only having heard rumors.
I was sitting with him as I often did after school. "I know I'm just being nosy," I said, trying to sound charming. I could do that with him, try things. "There's been a lot of gossip, and a lot of it is unbelievable. I'd like to know what really happened."
He gave me a look. I guess he wanted to know if I was just looking for titillating details or was more serious. My look must have been sincere enough.
He cleared his throat. "A couple of the seniors on the volleyball team told two freshmen that to be accepted on the team, they'd have to be initiated. So they took the two freshmen down into one of their basements and told them to strip. When they were both naked, they were told they had to give each other blowjobs. The two guys looked shocked. They were two freshmen, naked with two seniors who were grinning at them, and they were both scared. They looked at each other, looked at the grinning seniors, and one of them just said no, he wasn't going to do that. He told the seniors if that's what being on the team required, he wanted no part of it. The other freshman didn't say anything, just looked even more frightened than he had before.
"The braver one reached for his clothes, and one of the seniors grabbed him and told him he had a choice. He could do what he was told and be on the team, or he could be initiated in a different, much less pleasant way, right there, right then. Blow the other freshman or be really sorry he hadn't, but either way, he wasn't leaving without one or the other. And, if he ever told anyone about any of this, he'd be thoroughly and effectively beaten up outside school to show him how wrong he'd been to rat them out.
Coach shook his head. "I don't know where the freshman got the courage, but he yanked his arm away from the senior, looked him in the eye, and told him to fuck himself.
"The senior hit him, knocking him down. The freshman tried to fight back, but he was naked and much smaller and he was on the floor, and it was two against one and he didn't have a chance. He got hit several times as he was trying to get up, and then one of the seniors held him down and the other said, 'I told you. One way or the other. This is the other.' Then he got a tube of shampoo from the basement shower, got behind the freshman and began sodomizing him with it. When he did that, the freshman screamed, and the senior who was holding him down, needing to stop the screaming, panicked and smashed the boy's head down onto the floor. He did it hard enough that the kid was knocked unconscious.
"At that point, the seniors didn't know what to do. They tried to rouse him and couldn't. While they were doing that, the other freshman was being ignored. He made his way up the stairs, found a phone and called 911.
"When the police arrived, they found both the freshmen still naked. They called an ambulance and took the seniors into custody.
"That was the beginning of a real mess at school. The kid was in the hospital with a concussion. He eventually came to and told the police what had happened; it was the same story the other freshman had reported. An independent investigation authorized by the school board found hazing was part of several athletic teams, including the cross-country team."
"That . . . that's awful," I told Coach when he finished. "I wonder what I'd have done; would I have had the courage to say no like that kid did?"
"We don't know things like that till we get in a situation like that," he said. "That sort of thing helps tell us who we are. What we'll accept, no matter the consequences, and what we won't. Where our personal line is in the sand."
I don't know why just then, why I said what I did. Maybe it was the somber mood that had set in. Maybe it had to do with what he'd just told me and how it made me feel. Maybe I was just ready. But what I said was, "Coach, I'm gay, I think I'm gay, but I've never done anything with anyone, and what if I'd been forced to do that? My first time doing something sexual—and happened like that? It would have been . . . I can't even think about it. Ugh! It's too awful to even imagine. There wouldn't have been anything sexy about it."
"No. It was about power, not sex. Sexual assault usually isn't about sex at all. It's about showing you have total control over who you're doing it to. Gay or straight, it's the same thing. Power, not sex."
I didn't say anything; I was too busy visualizing that scene. It gave me goosebumps. He was looking at me, and it was then I fully realized what I'd said. Strangely, I wasn't bothered by it at all.
I said, "I've never told anyone else what I just told you."
He nodded. "And I won't, either; but I think you knew that."
"Did you have any idea—about me, I mean?"
He told me he'd thought it possible but saw no reason to ask. Why possible? He smiled at me and told me he'd had several gay kids during his years teaching and coaching, and they almost all had a characteristic I had, and no, it wasn't my innate reserve.
"It's that they tended to be more sensitive to other kids than straight boys," he said. "A couple were a bit reticent like you are, but not all of them were like that. Certainly, there were a lot that surprised me when they came out. Some were very outgoing. But I always wondered about the sensitive ones."
He told me he had a special interest in them because often they found high school a tougher journey than the others. They seemed to feel things more. He said when he was younger, he'd shared that trait with them—well, the reticence, not the sensitivity or the other. He also said that if I'd ever wondered why my teammates had elected me their captain, it was most likely because they recognized that quality in me, that sensitivity to others, and they felt I'd care about them as individuals.
I was again nearing my 4-mile marker. But I didn't feel like stopping. I felt too good. It was a glorious day, the air was scented from the leaves, a gentle breeze was cooling the sweat on my body, and the last thing I wanted to do was stop. So I came to the marker and ran past it. Then I started sprinting. I knew this wasn't part of my training. What worked best in the long run was to have a program and stick to it. I was building stamina now. Racing tactics would come when I was back in school.
But I just felt the need, and so I sprinted. I probably went a half mile farther, then slowed to a stop. I was breathing heavily now, and I felt the extra exertion in my chest and legs. But it was a good feeling. A well-earned feeling.
I walked a bit, finishing the first half of my bottle of water. I'd need the second half for the run home.
Normally, I'd only rest a couple of minutes, then start back at my usual pace. Today, I'd sprinted and would need a bit more recovery time. Also, the woods themselves looked so, so inviting.
I wandered off the path. It would be easy to get lost here. The woods ran for miles. But I knew where the trail was. I walked 90° away from it. To get back to it, I merely needed to turn around. I liked the slight tinge of fear I felt leaving the trail behind, walking out of sight from it. Now it was just me and the trees and undergrowth, the sounds and scents, the quiet and solemnity of the woods.
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