21: Closure

21: Closure

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School


You can out-distance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you.

~Rwandan Proverb

I was an athlete in my youth, a competitive figure skater with an unyielding desire to win. Gym class was my place to show off and I did so with absolute abandon. The only obstacle to my domination was a tall, good-looking boy with long legs and unusual muscular strength for his age. I will call him David Young. He was equally proud of his athletic abilities, and our rivalry played out every day after lunch. That he was a boy and I a girl fueled this competitive fire. So did the fact that I was white and he was black. Though we were not aware of this at twelve years old, our rivalry perfectly mirrored the racial tensions of the time in our community.

In the spring, we began our testing for the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards, a standardized Federal program. The final event, the six hundred yard run, carried the most weight and was my best event because of the stamina that my conditioning afforded me. I had made it into the top percentile ranking three years in a row, and in the seventh grade, I fully expected to enjoy similar success.

What none of us realized was the importance of these awards for our gym teachers. Their performance was linked to ours, and they came up with a brilliant plan to ensure results. On a hot spring day, the six hundred yard run was assembled. The class was placed in rows and given numbers to wear on their backs. They set the timers and pulled the trigger, and everyone started to run. Everyone except David and me.

When the class finished, they were sent to the bleachers. The teachers then guided me and David to the track, side by side—just the two of us at the starting block. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. This was, for both of us, the final showdown. And everyone was watching.

The trigger was pulled and we were off. I don’t remember the number of laps, only the sight of David a few feet ahead of me for all of them. My legs were numb, my breath heavy as we turned the final corner. Then something inside me burst open and I felt the speed gather at my feet. The other kids were cheering wildly, some for David, others for me. But it didn’t matter. I had to win. The few feet turned to inches and soon there was nothing in front of me but the finish line. I crossed it with David just at my heels.

It was, overall, a great success. David and I had our best scores, boosting the class average that would be reported to the Federal Government. Our school and the gym teachers would be recognized for the job well done. As for me, I had earned another patch with the navy stitching and bald eagle emblem. But the thrill of the victory was laced with guilt when I saw the humiliation take hold of my opponent.

We both avoided the crowd, walking ahead to the locker room doors around the side of the school. When we turned the corner, I felt the pull on my arm, then the hard pavement against my back. David had thrown me to the ground and was on top of me, his face anguished, his fists pounding into my gut. I didn’t react. It was over in a few seconds. David ran to the boys’ locker room and I got up off the ground, stunned but not hurt. I didn’t cry—at least, I don’t remember crying. What I do remember is that I took a shower and got on with my day. I never told a soul. The following year I moved to Colorado to train with a new coach. I never saw David again.

Twenty years later, the memory of that day lay buried beneath everything that had happened since: rocky teen years, first loves, college, and adulthood. I now had my own children, a house, a husband, and a new fledgling career as a writer. Still, as I would discover, the scars were there waiting to be healed.

I was at the kitchen counter writing when the doorbell rang. The cable guy had come to fix our reception and I let him in. He asked to go upstairs and I told him I had a baby sleeping and he would have to be quiet. He politely agreed, wiped his feet carefully and proceeded to the master bedroom where the problem had been. I went back to my work.

Later, I was in the middle of reading a chapter when he appeared from the front hall. With clipboard in hand, he apologized for interrupting me, then explained how he had fixed the problem. Distracted by my work, I took the clipboard without looking at his face. I signed on the line and handed it back to him, this time meeting his eyes and saying thank you. I expected him to pack it away and then allow me to walk him to the door. But instead he just stood there, staring at the name I had written.

“Is this your married name?” he asked, and I was a bit surprised. I told him it was.

“Did you grow up around here?” he asked again. His face was serious, and I began to study it to see what connection he was trying to make.

“Yes,” I said. Then I told him the name of the town.

He took a breath and looked down before speaking again. Then he said the words that I will never forget.

“I’m David Young.”

There was a long pause as we looked at each other, each of us feeling the memory work its way out of the past and into my kitchen.

“You live here?” he asked, though the answer was apparent.

“Yes,” I said.

“And you have children?”

“Yes. Two,” I answered again.

He seemed relieved, and I knew exactly the calculations he was making. No, he hadn’t hurt me. My mind and body were intact. I asked him about himself, and he told me of his brief stint in the military, and how he now dedicated his life to athletics. He ran several sports teams for underprivileged children and kept himself in peak condition. And we both knew he was doing more than catching me up. He was trying to explain.

We didn’t speak of the incident that had obviously lived inside both of us all these years. Instead, we gave each other clues with our words and the genuine kindness with which they were spoken. Through this benign social interaction, he rendered his apology, and I let him know that I understood the many influences that had been upon us that day in the seventh grade. The conversation came to an awkward end, and I walked him to the door, closing it after him.

I thought about David for many days, struck by the power that young adulthood can have throughout our lives. From the moment my cable box broke, to the timing of my call to have it fixed that placed him on the schedule and brought him to my door, there were forces at work that I will never understand. What I do know is that we were both given an incredible gift that day—the gift of closure.

~Wendy Walker

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