Growing from a tough and tearful DNF

Spirits were high in our household on Wednesday—our boys, Stephen and Simon, were representing their school at the county-wide First in Fitness meet in the mile run. Of course, Andrew and I were thrilled.

We arrived at SE Raleigh High School amidst an atmosphere of anticipation. Kids wore matching t-shirts for their school, the national anthem was sung, and each school cheered when their name was called. After opening ceremonies, Andrew and I shepherded the mile runners, one boy and one girl from 2nd through 5th grades, down to the track.

Stephen was here last year and hid his nervousness behind his usual brashness and bluster. Simon (and the other 2nd graders) was quiet. He was cognizant of the big honor of representing his grade in the mile run. His friend and 2nd grade female counterpart, Ruby, openly admitted she was nervous. She told me that she wished she’d been chosen for any event BUT the mile run. I smiled and told her just to do her best.

2nd graders went first. I high-fived Ruby, left her with her mom and dad, and went over to watch the boys (2 of them mine), who start at the same time but halfway around the track. The PE teacher in charge had military precision. “Now boys, are you going to go out as hard as you can?” “NO!” they answered. “Good, you’re smart.” Three minutes go by. “Are you going to go out as hard as you can?” “NO!” “Excellent, you’re thinking.” They are ready to go.Image

The signal was given and, contrary to their coaching, the kids tore off like they were being pursued by wild beasts. By the first turn, some were already spent. Simon ran by and my heart sank. He was running way too hard and looked pained. By lap 2, he was breathless and clutching a stitch in his side, and on the back stretch of the third lap, he stopped and dissolved into tears.

Andrew headed across the field to Simon while I looked for Ruby, who had started near the front of the pack. By lap 2, she was way out in front, but she was running a relaxed pace. The smile on her face got wider and wider with every lap. By lap 4 she was a good 100 yards in front of the next girl, and she finished, beaming, in first place.

Simon was crushed. The thought of facing his peers and telling them he hadn’t finished weighed heavily. He knew he’d let down his team. We told him we were proud of him for being chosen to run. We told him that we knew how disappointed he was. We assured him that he’d do better next time. We did not tell him he did a good job. He knew he had not done a good job. False praise offers little comfort.

I’d like to say he handled defeat like a good sport. He did not. He’s eight. He sobbed. The fact that the 3rd grade boy also DNF’d seemed to help more than anything. He did perk up a bit when he received his participant’s ribbon, but he was clearly jealous of Ruby’s bright blue first place and only barely choked out a “good job.” Fortunately, she was too thrilled to notice. Head low, eyes downcast, he headed back to re-join the rest of the Underwood team. When I joined him 30 minutes later, though, his spirits had improved markedly, and the excitement of hearing about all the events, good and bad, seemed to put his disappointment in own race into perspective.

Next morning, Simon came downstairs, chin up, head high, wearing his First in Fitness team shirt, ready to go to school. I didn’t say anything, but I was so proud of him at that moment.

Sometimes the growing you see in your children has nothing to do with height.

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