The most miserable moments were always those just before the game. I’d be jittery, almost hyperventilating. I would feel sick to my stomach, wretching every few minutes while I tried to focus. The angst and nerves would keep bubbling up and I’d pack them down, down, deeper into the cavity in my chest. I’d feel a real, physical weight on my shoulders and a tightness in my stomach. I’d hate myself. I was sure I wasn’t good enough, that I was going to be embarrassed, that I was going to let down everyone who was counting on me.
The game would start and the feeling would subsist. The other team always looked eight feet tall, fast and strong and completely superior to me. I didn’t stand a chance and I knew it.
Then, without fail, something funny would happen. The other team would take a shot. It’d hurtle towards me and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would go through my legs or bounce off my hands and settle in the goal. I’d stare wide-eyed, anticipating the end. And then I’d dive for the ball, outstretch my arms, and… catch the ball. The crowd would cheer. My teammates would call for the ball. I’d look over and Coach Mac would be standing there, arms folded, smiling his chewing-tobacco smile. And the world would flip upside down.
I belong here. I can do this. I am king. I cannot be stopped.
And the game would be on. Waiting for that moment was always the worst. It was a cruel combination of running sprints, getting dumped, and being in trouble all rolled into one. And then the moment would lift and my confidence would soar. I would know that people were relying on me and that I would not let them down.
That’s how Monday felt for me. I couldn’t tell if I was sick because of nerves or lack of rest, but I was legitimately worried that I’d have to leave class during first hour to throw up over the railing of my portable. My team teacher pointed out how nervous I looked, and she was right: In between bouts of writing more directions, activities, and notes on the board, I was pacing around the room torrentially, glancing out the window, sighing, breathing deep.
And then Ms. Pontikos’ voice came on over the intercome: “Would all teachers report to their duty stations. We’re about to open up the doors to students.” My portable building is on the opposite side of the school from my entrance so students were already lined up at the metal detectors. As soon as I saw the kids, though, I snapped into action, all nervousness and fear forgotten. I was no longer Dalton, scared college kid certain that an entire organization had royally screwed up in accepting me.
I was Mr. Goodier, 7th grade writing teacher. I clapped my hands. I bounded around. I slapped kids backs and I wore a huge grin. I was loud and articulate. Kids listened to me. Other teachers smiled at me. I fed off my own energy. I belong here. I can do this.
First hour began twenty minutes late because it took so long to get everyone through the detectors. I shook every kids hand as they walked in through my door. Once everyone was in, I shut the door, walked to the front, and looked out at my kids and their grubby, expectant faces.
“Good morning class. My name is Mr. Goodier and you are going to be the best 7th grade writers in the state of Oklahoma. In 274 days, you will be taking the writing test that will prove to you, me, your parents, your school, and the whole state that you are the best. I’m extremely excited for that day, but we’ve got to do a lot of hard work to get there.”
I belong here. I can do this.