When I think of my brief career as an eighth grade high jumper, I recall tumbling into the bar over and over as if I were turning in a particularly bad dream. I pulled the bar from beneath me or behind me or on top of me and set it back on the standards again for another try in an infinite series of futile attempts at the qualifying height. Following each “sproing” of the aluminum bar, a sound echoed from 50 yards away, where Coach Tristin stood timing runners.
“Damn!” he’d huff, “damn…it.”
After each away track meet during my eighth grade season, the team sat on the bus as Coach Tristin handed out ribbons. By the third or fourth track meet, it became quite clear I was unlikely to win any ribbon in high jump. Coach Tristin patiently tried to teach me in practice, but somehow the moves never came naturally. The bar kept falling. I seldom cleared the qualifying height and never scored a point for the team.
Late in the season, Coach Tristin began to throw me into some longer races—and eventually that is where I found my niche in track—but, without much training or preparation, I was no more successful at those races. On the bus after the last meet, I remember the same names being called and watching teammates swinging on the seat backs, their legs kicking up to the front of the bus. Some seemed embarrassed and some boastful, but they all turned around smiling. My throat balled into a fist. I so wanted those ribbons… which Coach Tristin could not give me, which no one can give anyone.
At the end of eighth grade, I went to hand over the uniform my mother had reverently washed and folded. Coach Tristin checked me off. I hadn’t intended to say anything, but what came out was, “I don’t think I’ll be doing track next year.” I suppose I hoped he’d say I hadn’t found my event or recall a moment of promise or offer up some praise for my effort, but Coach Tristin just looked tired. I said, “I didn’t contribute,” using the word he’d stressed all season.
Of course, I don’t remember his response exactly. The gist was, “Come out or don’t come out, it’s up to you.” It was the lesson he thought I needed. If he said, “Yes, leave,” or “No, stay,” he could have made it easier, but it’s never easy. Or clear.
A few years ago I resigned a supervisory role at work. The people I worked for and the people I worked with drove me crazy, and neither listened much. I’d stopped sleeping, and every day I asked, “Is it me or them? Is it that I’m weak, too devoted to being liked, inadequate to the task?”
My supervisors and some of the people I supervised praised my work ethic, but no one objected strenuously to my stepping down. I took that as a sign.
Coach Tristin was not a pretty man and is an even uglier ghost. He stood before me.
When you quit, some people always say you’re courageous, being realistic because you recognize what you really want to do. But it sounds like faint praise. “You’re smart to cut your losses,” they seem to mean, or “embracing your limitations is noble. It’s self-knowledge.” Yet, for me, it never seems so.
My history of quitting is no longer or shorter than anyone else’s. I’ve quit because of fatigue, disinterest, and frustration. I’ve quit to pursue new opportunities or to liberate time. I’ve quit prematurely and well after I should have. Every time I ask what the decision makes me. I can’t split the act from the actor.
Few people who knew me as a supervisor remain, and others have dim memories. Occasionally someone will mention it, however, and then my oversensitive soul hears a whispered “mistake,” or “quitter,” or “failure.” They assume we both see that chapter of my life the same way, but the person who leapt toward that high jump standard over and over and over—hates those moments.
I never high jumped again and didn’t come out for the next track season. Later I did come out, and when I ran for another coach and several after that, I discovered I was a talented runner. I contributed, won ribbons. At first, I ran to defy Coach Tristin, vanquish the specter of surrender, paste over a picture of myself I couldn’t erase, but then I ran to stop worrying I’d quit track or anything else on anything other than my own terms.
Some part of me is still the boy sulking over ribbons he thinks he deserves, the one who wants to show the world he can. Look into my eyes and you’ll find the phantom of Coach Tristin and the fear the rest of the world will see him there too.