Tom stood at the service line of the volleyball court. He took a deep breath and served the ball toward the opposing court. The ball didn’t quite reach its intended target, as it fell into the net.
It was an early Fall afternoon . Our middle school had use of the neighboring high school’s gym facility at particular times of the day. I was in attendance, not by designed patronage, but by happenstance. I, as the high school’s girls volleyball coach, was awaiting afterschool practice as soon as the middle school’s gym class ended.
I knew Tom, the protagonist of this story. He was one of my students at the middle school. Tom was a good student and a pleasant fellow. Although not the quintessential athlete, he did possess adequate coordination.
As I watched the gym class volleyball match; the enthusiasm and intensity level was high. As one would find with that age group. All games are played for bragging rights around the campus, as though they were championship finals.
Tom’s turn to serve had come again. This time he put a much stronger effort behind his serve. It had more than enough to cross over the net. However, it hooked wildly out-of-bounds, to the moans of his teammates.
As the game progressed Tom’s team was being pummeled by their adversaries. The score was 12-3. In volleyball the team that scores 15 points first wins the match. I could see Tom trying to avoid his next turn at serve by moving further down the line. The gym teacher noticed his attempt to avoid the dreaded service line, and motioned Tom to return to his place in line. He did reluctantly, as though what lie before him was a Guillotine. As a volleyball coach I can attest that a player feels never more alone than at the service line. The cheering quiets as the serve is made. When the stakes are high the silence is deafening. If the mind is not clear of doubt, making a good serve is difficult.
Tom besides being a good and personable student, favored the republican party. I suppose due to the influence of a conservative upbringing. He and I were simpatico politically, and talked at times about the subject. As his turn at serve approached, I could see he was stressing over it. So I called him over to offer a bit of encouragement. What seems insignificant to most, is quite significant to a kid his age. He wanted to contribute positively to his team’s effort; not be the cause for its poor showing. As he came toward me he said questioningly; “Yes, Mr. M?” “Tom,” I said, pointing in the direction of his very confident game leading opponents; “They are all Democrats!” He smiled and returned to his place in line.
As he stood at the service line he looked over at me, a bit more relieved. I expect because he no longer felt alone with the burden he was carrying. I again pointed at the opposing team’s court. He proceeded to deliver a serve that cleared the net and remained in bounds. The ball hit the floor for an ace. The opposition was stunned; and as well his teammates, who had already begun to rotate their positions in anticipation of his missed serve. Tom was swarmed by his team with high fives. And for the remainder of the match he would not relinquish the serve. That which he was so frightened of, became his skill of expertise.
Tom’s team would rally to overtake their opponents and win the game with a score of 15-12. As the school bell rang it brought the gym class to an end and heralded one of the greatest comebacks, led by a most unexpected hero, in middle school gym class history. As Tom was nearly carried off the floor toward the gym door exit by his joyous and victorious teammates, he looked back with that same smile that he had when I offered him a source of relief to his solitude.
Tom’s difficulty did not stem from some incapability. For he proved not only to all in attendance, but more importantly to himself, that he was quite capable of succeeding in the task before him. It was not inability that stood in his way; it was fear.
To give him an even chance, he needed to divert his thoughts from fear. Easing the tension was accomplished by lightening the moment. The comment I made to him was to do just that. It didn’t guarantee what the outcome would come to be. But it did remove the obstacle of fear, that up until then, had all but paralyzed him. As silly as it may seem, Tom’s passion for conservatism provided the antidote to the fear that was stifling his true potential. But, the more important elixir to his ailment was to know he was not alone. By drawing him over and placing an unimposing mask over his opponent, reassured him that he had someone in support.
Fear can be of value when it compels a choice that may divert one from a harmful outcome; be it of body, mind or spirit. Fear is of no value if it bars our way from growth toward a greater good. When one realizes one is not alone, fear loses its crippling grip.
Let us take from Tom’s experience a most important truth. That, even in our darkest hour, we are never alone.
“and behold I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world.” – Matthew 28:20