November Cuts

As the snow came down this past Saturday during the track meet at Centennial Park, someone mentioned T.S. Elliott’s line, “April is the cruelest month.” Elliott was right, of course, but the cruelest week of the year, at least in my book, is the second week of November.

Let me explain why. In the fall there are lots of sports teams with lots of players. Think of all the boys you can accommodate on cross-country, football, and soccer teams.  When you play outside, you have room for big rosters.

When you move indoors, though, you moved to a confined space with a limited number of spots. Those of you who have tried out for hockey, squash, and basketball know exactly what this means.  I’ll come back to that second week of November in a moment but first, I want to tell you something about the stage of life you are going through.

If you take a psychology class when you are at university, you will learn two things: First, that there is a psychological task associated with each and every stage of human development. And second, a social scientists named Eric Ericson determined that the task of adolescence revolves around the question of identity. It is the “Who am I question?” that you ask yourself, your teachers, your parents, and your friends all the time and in all kinds of ways – and almost always without words.

Think for just a second about how you see yourself.  Do you see yourself as a fencer, a singer, a mathematician, a trombone player, a left wing, a chess wizard, a power forward, a scientist, or a poet? How you see yourself is important because it’s something that you are testing out all the time. It’s why prizes (and in the US t-shirts and bumper stickers) matter so much, and it is also why failure and disappointment hurt so much at your age.

When I was entering high school, I thought I was a basketball player.  Those of you who have seen me scuffle on the hardwood can guess how this sad story ends.

Here’s the embarrassing part: Not only was I cut from the freshman basketball team, but I was a “first cut.” And back when leisure suits first roamed the earth, nobody pulled you aside to console you or talk about what went wrong, or what you should work on, or what you could do to prepare yourself for the following year. I learned of my failure by reading a handwritten note, posted on the gym door, a note that simply said, “The following are NOT to return to the gym this afternoon…”

What made this particularly painful was the realization that my best friend not only survived the cut but actually made the team, a point that comes up in conversation not infrequently. Four decades after the fact, he still manages to ever so deftly work this into our conversations. He’ll say clever things like, “Hey, Jim, pass me the pickles, and while you’re at it, do you remember when I made the St. Joe’s Prep basketball team and you didn’t?” He’ll also ask insightful questions such as, “Hey, Jim, were you in the first or second cut? I think it was the first because you were so horrible, but if you had played your best, you might have made it all the way to the second cut. Maybe.”

I can laugh about this now, (well, maybe “laugh” isn’t exactly the right word!), but in that 2nd week of November in the year 1972, I was not such a happy camper.

The day I got cut, I went home, got in shower, and cried.  (Like a man, of course!)  No, I confess that I howled like a banshee at the overwhelming embarrassment of it all.

My dad,  God love him, could sense my disappointment (I come from a long line of very perceptive men) and told me to “get off the pity pot and go make a team.” It’s worth noting that he didn’t call the principal or the coach or the advisor or the counselor. In his old fashioned, thoroughly un-enlightened way — I doubt that he’d read much about the wonders of “self-advocacy” — he just told me to stop feeling sorry for myself.

That night, I checked the student handbook and discovered that swimming had a no cut policy. Since I could float, I “made” the swim team. If truth be told, I never became a great swimmer, and I still shudder every time I walk by a cold swimming pool, but I did make some good friends and along the way, I got to know a great swimming coach and a great man in Fr. Tom Roach.

Twenty years later, I went down to Washington, DC to interview for the headmaster’s job Georgetown Prep. Like UCC, Georgetown Prep is a great boys school. It was founded in 1789, and for most of its history, it was a part of Georgetown University.

I was 34 and a bit nervous going for that first interview, but I also felt extraordinarily fortunate because on that hiring committee happened to be – as luck would have it — my old swimming coach, Fr. Roach, who had moved to DC a decade earlier. (I don’t know if we do a good job of stressing the importance of this, but it’s important to be lucky. I got the job the old fashioned way: I knew somebody!)

I was fortunate enough to serve in that role for 10 years, and that’s actually how I ended up coming to UCC, almost a decade ago. Georgetown Prep is a part of the boys’ school network, and when UCC’s former principal, Doug Blakey (a swimming coach, by the way) decided to retire, a consultant called me up and encouraged me to come to Toronto.

Which brings me back to that 2nd week of November. I sometimes meet with boys who are frustrated or upset, boys who see themselves as actors, musicians, or hockey or basketball players. Frequently a boy will point out the injustice of his not getting a part in the play or the unfairness of his not making a team. I try to listen closely because often these boys are in anguish. (Hey, I still remember howling in the shower that long ago afternoon!)

But I also think a lot about how lucky I was that I got cut from that grade 9 basketball team. And about how lucky I was to have a dad who told me to not give in to my own sorrow, to explore new options, to make the best of a setback.

Yes, when I was a kid, I saw myself as a basketball player, but through the foggy rearview mirror of life, I can see now that there was another road for me to travel.

I hope that someday when disappointment dope slaps you – as it inevitably will–  someone will be there to encourage you. I hope you won’t give in to that disappointment, that you will get off the pity pot, get out of the shower, and get into the pool.  Especially if it’s the 2nd week of November.


11 thoughts on “November Cuts

  1. Another nice piece of writing, Jim — well done, I love your personal recollections, for they humanize all this for the boys. and yes, we all had those crushing moments…which help us grow (the topic of my parents dinner talk next week, by the way — and yes, I may cite your piece!).

  2. Jim, you illuminate again and again that the personal–if investigated deeply enough–is the universal. a lovely piece that I intend to steal from without shame–and with gratitude. Dan

  3. Jim—-Great message for all ages, you just hope one is able to comprehend or live through early in life. I think we’re missing some tough love these days. We don’t do our young people any favors in avoiding clarity. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Another good thought piece. But I stick with April because I think T.S. might have been a closet golfer and the vagaries of the weather, the conditions of the course and my own fragile psyche often preclude me from playing my best or heck even coaching my best.

  5. Always the editor. Last paragraph– “does” not dope.

    Great article.
    Our parents were right, I think.

    Last week was a cruel week.

  6. A wonderful “read,” Jim! This made my afternoon recess incredibly worthwhile. Another great life lesson for your young men at UCC. Bravo!

  7. Hi Jim,

    My 12-year-old tried out for the Mooredale Select Soccer Team this weekend. As her athletic ability mirrors her mother’s, she did not make the team. I find that these setbacks bring back all of that angst I felt all those years ago and I literally feel her pain. She had a shower, we talked about skill development, and I served her favourite dinner. Maybe next week she will be ready for your Power Point.

    LIfe, eh?


  8. Jim, this is one of your best! I love it and can easily relate to the shutdowns and disappointments that hit each of us while growing up! Beautifully written!

    Kate P.

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