The colors of the sky washed from blue to orange to pink before fading to periwinkle and finally grey, the evening washing away the remnants of the sun. I curled up on the pleather arm chair with a book in hand, coffee in arm’s reach and watched the display. Intermittently sipping my decaf Americano and reading a paragraph or two in my book, I closed my eyes and breathed in the tones of music prescribed for a coffee shop, the click of the keyboard across the way, the chatter of an Eastern European language I couldn’t succinctly place.
I was alone, for a moment.
Traveling with a team from our rural island comes with a whole list of unique challenges, the first of which involving airplanes and ferries, the second involving multiple nights spent in sleeping bags in high school classrooms. We are together, all the time. We pack fourteen bodies among desks, organized by outlets charging various devices, agreeing to silence our phones and settle in at prearranged times driven by a common courtesy and a common goal. We share bathroom sinks and mirrors, toothpaste and alarm clocks, food and socks and sometimes uniforms. No one’s parents can drop by items left behind; no one has the luxury of a good night’s sleep at home in a comfortable bed.The track athletes act more like sibling than they do classroom peers. After a dozen shared seasons and months worth of traveling an ocean away from home, they graduate with an intimate knowledge of each other’s lives, shared over breakfast across tile floors flanking sleeping pads, whispered in the backseats of minivans rented for a long weekend of driving all over the state. As coaches we admonish them to get up on time, to plan and prepare in advance, but when the inevitable athlete fails to be ready on time, she often makes do—running out the door, duffle bag in hand, willing to brush her teeth on the road rather than penalize everyone for her poor form. They learn that everyone contributes to a successful team, that everyone must participate in the agreed upon rhythm or chaos will ensue.
In the moments where I am able to remove myself from the immediacy of a minivan packed with teenagers, or a classroom overflowing with the smell of body spray from Victoria’s Secret, I remember what a pleasure it is to be present in this stage of their lives, to have good and hard conversations about education and relationships and risk-taking and adventure. At 10:15pm the night before I had taken the team captain out to pick up pizza, a hot but quick dinner after leaving the track after 9pm, knowing we’d be back there at 7am. We were both exhausted, and inevitably ended up talking about sleep, and that’s when I learned that she slept terribly at home, as she was constantly called upon to help her mom who deals with health struggles that limit her mobility. Sitting around the infield of the track during the meet the next day I learn about another senior who is planning on staying at home after graduating to care for her mother, whose cancer has returned. A week later this same student quit the team to take a job in town, feeling the family’s need for money was greater than athletic conquest.
After my oasis at the coffee shop, I picked up the athletes at a nearby mall and headed back to our lodging, bedding down in room 105, a classroom I have stayed in over half a dozen times. Word trickled in just before our agreed upon “lights out” time that the gym was open and balls available, and all of the sudden the team was together again: shooting around, bumping and setting, chasing and laughing and posing under the spotlight above the door. They laughed at my inability to make a three point shot. I praised their swishing baskets (or attempts) as we dribbled around in the twilight. And in that moment, I was so content to be with them. To watch them work hard, to be a part of their play.
A couple weeks later a gal I have coached for six seasons celebrated her birthday with a gathering at the beach. She invited me to stop by, and I walked the short distance from my house to the bay as Curtis put the kids down for bed. The gathered athletes cheered at my arrival, at which point I realized I was the only one over eighteen years old in attendance. I sat on a large piece of driftwood a collection of guys had drug over, adding to the commentary on marshmallow roasting technique, trying my hand at catching a marshmallow in my mouth at long range (I failed), protesting at their attempts to stand on the dried out pallets as they burned in the growing fire. These students have to hang out with me on so many weekends for so many hours in classrooms and on airplanes and at tracks and in minivans. I was honored to have been invited to the gathering, the collection of a couple dozen upper classmen I have coached, and cheered, and called-out, and encouraged.
I walked home shortly before 10pm, the light in the sky waning at last, my mind appreciating the quiet of the evening. My alone time is limited these days, a precious luxury I stumble upon in coordinated naps and the occasional hour I steal away on trips out of town. My together time—with my children, my family, my athletes, my church—it is full. And it is good.