In a Man’s Voice: The Jersey by Vernon Wildy, Jr.

Vernon was born in Richmond, Virginia on June 6, 1971.  After being schooled in the Henrico County school system, he went to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and received a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering in 1994.  After college, he returned to the Richmond area and entered the workforce and worked in the transportation industry, mostly in operations.  During that time, Vernon discovered a poetry group in the area and began to read at open mic events around the city of Richmond.  He also was able to have some of his works published in Fantasia magazine, a local literary magazine.  While continuing with poetry events, he began taking graduate classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He finished his Masters in Business Administration in 2010. He self-published his first novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Visit his blog, I Got Something to Say.

Editor’s note: This essay generated a lot of emotion in me. Vernon first wrote this essay as a poem – In both the poem and prose forms, he captures the loneliness, confusion, and isolation of adolescent boyhood, but he never panders.  It is what it is. I love how he conveys the burning desire to be on the inside, and yet balances it with an even more powerful urge to bring someone else into his world on his terms. Not to be ignored is the beginning of anger, and that anger deliberately suppressed. Thank you, Vernon, for letting us IN. I love this essay.

The Jersey | by Vernon Wildy, Jr.  

I’d known who she was since kindergarten, but it took until eighth grade for me to finally notice her.  Up until that point, I had paid her little mind.  To me, she was only somebody who was always in my class every year.  But when we got to eighth grade and I saw her walking around the middle school campus, she finally caught my eye.

Boy, did she ever.

She had developed faster than the other girls, her breasts and butt standing out like neon signs shining at night.  Her figure was more womanly than a good percentage of the teachers at our school.  That year a lot of the boys were paying extra attention to her.  You could always hear whispers of, “Hey, check her out…..” going around when she walked by. And just like them, I was checking her out, too.  This was my first feeling of infatuation and I really wanted to say something to her; but at that age, I didn’t have that kind of confidence. I was sort of tall, but definitely chubby.  Every day I was dressed too plainly to even be noticed.  As kids wore the cool clothes at the time, I was wearing a wardrobe of buttoned-up plaid shirts, casual polyester pants, brown loafers, and white socks.

What really took the cake was my backpack.

At first glance, it was a normal-looking backpack.  The one thing that made it stand out in the worst way was that my mom was insistent that she write my name on it with a permanent pen.  She wanted to make sure that in case another student had a similar backpack that my name would tell everyone that my backpack was mine.  And of course, the entire school knew it was mine and they let me know about it.  It was not a good look and during the preteen years, the one thing at my school that was near the top of priorities was looking good. So there I was walking around wearing uncool clothes, slinging around an uncool backpack, and having an uncool body shape that didn’t work in my favor.

And there she was, standing out from the rest and gaining the whole school’s attention.

I felt myself drift further and further away, feeling lost and out of sight.  I realized then that making the honor roll and answering every teacher’s questions correctly would never gain me favor or even a chance to be near what was blossoming before me. There was also something else I learned during that eighth grade year.  Football was very, very important at my school.  I should’ve known that, but I actually didn’t pay too much attention.  In my mind, football was just a game, something that we played in the neighborhood, whether tackle football in someone’s backyard or touch football out in the street.  We had a ton of fun going at each other, yet football was also a place to prove yourself, especially to the older kids.  I held my own most times, even though I wasn’t the fastest or most athletic. But that’s where my football playing stayed.

When I was about eight years old, my doctor recommended to my parents that I shouldn’t play organized football.  His reasoning was that I was going to experience a growth spurt in my teenage years and he felt my body couldn’t take the wear and tear while still growing.  My parents agreed and so during youth football season, I stayed home while most of the other kids in the neighborhood were heading out to football and cheerleading practice.  It never really bothered me that I didn’t play because my parents kept me pretty busy with other activities during the fall.

Middle school started to show me that football could put a boy at the top of the popularity totem pole.  The players always seemed to have the prettiest girls talking to them and they got the most attention around school.  That was especially true when game day arrived.  The team members always had a tradition of wearing their jerseys at school all throughout that day.  The school would be dotted with light blue jerseys bouncing around campus.  Everybody got excited for the games, especially if they were playing at home.  Those days we didn’t have to ride the school bus home.  We could stay after school, watch the game, and have our parents pick us up after the game was over. But when you saw those blue jerseys around campus, they were not being worn by the players.

In a lot of cases, those jerseys were being worn by girls.

The girls usually caught up with the boys before school started and asked to wear their jerseys.  Girlfriends wore their boyfriends’ jerseys, cheerleaders wore one of the popular players’ jerseys, and random girls would wear other players’ jerseys.  In my school, wearing a jersey was a big deal. As for me, I had no jersey to give anyone.  I was just a normal student walking around campus, going to my classes, and looking to do my best.  I tried not to think about the jerseys being worn by the girls.  I wasn’t the envious type and I was cool with most of the players.  I went to the games just like everyone else and cheered the team on.

One day during eighth grade, all of that changed. That’s when I saw her. The girl who developed faster than the others walking around campus. With a jersey on. A light blue meshed jersey with the number “88” worn over her short-sleeved shirt.  The eights curved over her breasts, making those numbers stand out even more. I knew the guy who wore that number.  He was a quiet type who was in three of my classes.  Having seen the team play before during that season, I knew he didn’t play much, if at all.  I saw him on the sidelines, but don’t really remember if he got in the games or not.  But he was on the team, she was wearing his jersey, and all I could do was watch her saunter around campus. All throughout that day I tried my hardest to not show that I was jealous.  I don’t think I talked much to either of them or to anybody else.  My mind was filled with the image of that girl and that jersey.

I just started getting mad at everybody.

I was mad at my doctor for not letting me play football like the other boys.  I was mad at my parents for listening to and agreeing with him.  I was mad at all of the football players for being so popular.  I was mad at her for wearing that jersey.  I was mad at myself for being a chubby kid. Then at lunch, everything came to a head.  I was eating my lunch with my friends when I saw her at an adjacent table sitting with a bunch of other girls, still wearing that light blue “88” jersey.  As my friends continue to chatter along, I sat quietly.  All I could do was stare at her, my eyes wishing that this day wasn’t so and that she would notice me begging to be noticed.

“Look at me!!”  I wanted to scream.

“Look at me!!  I don’t have a jersey but I got all my math problems right!  I spelled every word correctly on my English paper!  I know where the cranium and the clavicle are on the human body!  I know all about Jamestown!   Look!!  I even do well in Spanish class!  Look!! ¿Cómo está usted?!?   Muy bien!”            

But I stayed silent.  I didn’t say a word to anybody about how I felt.  Things were what they were.  The football team was tops in this school and the only thing I could do was go along with the flow.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Campfires, Tattoos, and Blood Oaths: Rites of Passage in Adolescence

When I was living in North Carolina several years ago I attended a great training on helping youth navigate their transitions to adulthood by appreciating their need for ritual and rites of passage.  I may still have that material around here somewhere, but for now I “dig out” a lot of resources with Google.  Today I found this project that is very similar to the one I knew in Durham:  ROPE is Rite of Passage Experience.

Children and teens have a natural impulse to create or take part in rites of passage experiences to claim their place as adults. If this impulse is not acknowledged and channeled, it can result in them turning to destructive activities such as drinking, smoking, bullying, sex, delinquent acts, joining gangs, and the use of drugs to mark for themselves and their peer group their entry into adulthood.

I loved the training I attended, because it was open to exploring the opportunities around young people’s natural instincts.  It also helped me appreciate why I think the West Virginia 4-H Program at Jackson’s Mill had such a strong influence on so many adolescents in my community.  The program has taken some heat for borrowing too heavily and perhaps not always authentically from Native American traditions; that said, those traditions, campfires, chants, shared songs, peace pipes, tribal affiliations and spirit sticks grabbed hold of a tremendous amount of teen energy and kept it constructive, serious, and positive.

Adolescence is a time of growth, and change, and mystery.  It is a time of powerful transition and even spiritual evolution.  It fascinates me how primitive but important developmental “tasks” are fulfilled one way or another as kids grow up.  The picture I chose for this post is from the movie Dead Poets Society. Students of a particularly inspiring teacher take to secret meetings in the woods to read the works of dead poets, but also to bond with each other and explore amongst themselves thoughts, dreams, and goals they have never allowed themselves to consider before in the broad light of adult expectations and rules.  For those who are supported, it is freeing and resets their life course for the better.  For the one student whose new fire is abruptly extinguished by a disapproving parent, it is devastating.

Like adults, kids have a need to mark their dramatic transitions with ritual and rites of passage.  That process will happen one way or the other in the adolescent years.   Caring adults can help it happen with purpose and long-term benefits.

Image credit: The Students of Welton Academy

Flight of the Fledgling: Adolescents and Risk

fledg·ling also fledge·ling (fl j l ng). n. 1. A young bird that has recently acquired its flight feathers.

One of the most common images of necessary risk is the baby bird, poised on the edge of its nest.  There comes a time when every strong and healthy little avian creature struggles up to take the plunge, and if it doesn’t figure it out on its own, it’s momma’s job to push it out, for its own good.

In our species, the teenage years are the human version of a period for taking necessary risk.  The necessity of the process does nothing to mitigate how nail-bitingly stressful it is to behold; but now and then considering risk-taking as a developmental task for adolescents can help adults be a little more patient and understanding as our baby birds flop their way into the world.

Young people don’t wake up one day as responsible, functioning, healthy adults.  They learn a lot by trial and error.  I’ll never forget my own introduction to smoking tobacco.  My decision was influenced strongly by adult behavior and by my general conviction that I needed to try on this behavior if I was going to ever move forward to become “grown up.”  I was thirteen years old on a student exchange trip to France, and I was the youngest student in our group.  My absolute idol was a high school senior on the trip from my school system who was tall, rail thin, totally sophisticated, and mysteriously beautiful.  For some unknown reason she let he hang out with her.  She smoked Dunhill cigarettes, which are made by British American Tobacco company and generally considered “luxury” cigs.

"Remember that fledgling birds are learning to fly and when you see them on the ground, leave them be and bring your pets inside. Courtesy of Wildlife Images."

Of course we all know that there is nothing luxurious about cancer, phlegm, and emphysema, but you can’t really convey that to a fledgling, not all the way when you are competing against a powerful if misguided instinct to develop into an adult.  Thankfully, smoking never really took off for me, and I believe one of the reasons is that my father gave me a story that “allowed” that to happen.  He told me once that he really tried to be a smoker (which to this day cracks me up).  He tried cigarettes, pipes, and various other techniques for consuming tobacco, but at the end of the day he “just didn’t like it.”  As simple as that is, I think it created a different paradigm for me than anything any other adult was selling.  I will always be grateful for dad showing me that putting down something you pick up is a choice that can be successfully implemented, and especially for admitting that he wanted to be cool but eventually decided someone else’s definition of cool was not going to run his life.

This to me is the ultimate risk in many ways for all of us, and maybe the last great wing pump before we can really soar.  Teens are going to try things, sometimes dangerous things.  They want to find out what happens, yes; but they also want to find out where certain behaviors and choices fit in the framework of the adult they are trying to become.  Of course this is rarely a conscious process, but if we watch kids taking risks and remember they are not necessarily permanent decisions but learning processes, it can help.

Some risks will be unacceptable, and should be explained as such.  Kids will still probably try them anyway, but as they make their final decisions about who they will be as adults they are likely to remember what we told them.  “I tried that.  I chose not to make it part of who I am today.”

That message can go a long way.

Image source:

I Want to Be a Shepherd

I’ve mentioned here before my utter love of the film Good Will Hunting.  Most of that love is connected to the depth of acting performance by Robin Williams, but the character of Will, the plot line, and the dialogue are major drivers of my adoration as well. 

Some of the dialogue is heavy and deep, and some is just snappy and delivered with spot-on timing.  It’s interesting how even the silly lines will crop up for me as I interpret and consider the characters and plot of my life.  There is a pivotal scene in the film where Sean (Robin Williams) is pressing Will (Matt Damon) to connect with himself on a level deeper than any he previously has allowed.  Will’s entire persona is a mask, an armor against the vulnerability of life alone, truly alone and exposed as someone no one understands, loves, or cares about in any regard.  As long as that person is not exposed, he preserves his illusion that he is alone by choice, and that he does not care what anyone thinks of him.

After multiple generous attempts to pry some genuine self-examination from Will, Sean tries again.  “What do you want to be?  What do you want to do with your life?”  Will says with false sincerity, “I want to be a shepherd.  I want to get some sheep and tend to them.”  Finally at the end of his tolerance rope, Sean kicks Will out of the therapy session and directs him not to come back.  The scene ends with what I am sure must be a highlight of Williams’ legendary ad-lib tradition, when Will drops a “F*ck you” to which Sean replies seamlessly as he closes the door in Will’s face, “You’re the shepherd.”

This is all preamble to an epiphany I had listening to a friend’s teenage son bemoan the hard choices of adolescent social life.  In a half-hearted defense of some peers who harshly criticized one another online he said, “It’s just the way it is.  You all don’t understand.  You’re either a wolf or you’re a lamb.”  The implicit judgement was clear:  Only an idiot would be a lamb by choice.  It’s best to take others down first and establish oneself as a wolf not to be messed with, rather than to take a placid and passive approach to negotiating relationships and reputations.  One travels that route at his or her own peril.

Many people see the world this way, and frankly for good reason.  They have not been presented with many other choices, and the adolescent world is notorious for exacerbating these human tendencies.  I think it must be because I know the adult leadership in the mix so well that Will’s choice, facetious as it is in the film, popped into my mind.  There is another choice, and it is a genuine choice. 

We can be wolves, we can be sheep, or we can be shepherds.

The image of The Good Shepherd is sacred in my faith tradition.  My parents made a point of making sure I understood — really understood via trips to a Pocahontas County farm on an annual basis growing up — what it means to be a shepherd.  Sheep, God bless them, are about as impossible to manage and care for as livestock comes.  If you’ve been around sheep to any extent, you know what I’m saying.  They are darling, and hopelessly dense and reactionary.  They get a lot of nasty stuff stuck to them as they bumble around, and they can’t clean themselves.  They have no idea how to take care of themselves at all.  They are nearly defenseless against predators and they couldn’t find their way home with a compass, a map, and a flashlight.  This is for starters.

It’s important to understand the nature of sheep if you want to really understand the nature of a shepherd.  Sheep need a lot of help, and they will never stop needing help.  Somewhere along the line someone decided they were worth it, and that the effort required to help them along was important.  I think of that when I am presented with false choices about lambs and wolves.

It’s a dangerous job.  It’s an exhausting job.  It’s a thankless job.  But when the flock is all accounted for, and the fire burns low and a friend is on watch, I’m not sure there’s a better rest to be had.

I want to be a shepherd.

Image credit: Silver Valley Stories

STOMP! go the doors

I’d like to tell you I don’t know who this is, but I do! (circa 1985)

This essay is part of the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  Like any writer, I know that most of the best work is developed through several rounds of drafts and editing and more drafts.  Something about this subject matter, however, made me want to just write and not edit, to let the purity of an adolescent memory be uncontaminated by adult rules and regulations.  I hope you enjoy this reflection on one of the most important parts of my growing up, State 4-H Camp at Jackson’s Mill.  The pictures may be a little fuzzy, but the memories have a tight focus.


I’m in a dance hall just outside Jackson’s Mill in Weston, West Virginia.  I remember just a few sights and sounds, but those recalled are so strong after all these years they appear in my mind as if they just walked in the door of my memory.

All of the tables and chairs are pushed against the walls or put away.  The space is filled with the throbbing life of young people in their late teens.  Boys and girls — or is it men and women? — vibrate with energy as they tap their feet and bounce up and down in anticipation of the most popular dance at camp.

It begins.

Kanawha County fellows danced to Morris Day and The Time

What’s funny is I don’t remember the song, or the tune.  I remember the Tyler boys, and Todd and Bryan and George.  I remember Lionel.  All but the younger Tyler boy had facial hair.  They wore cowboy boots and every girl in camp wanted to dance with them.

I remember the older Tyler boy was five years older than me.  I knew this because I first crushed on him when I was 15 years old, and he was…..twenty.  I knew he could never be interested in a little kid like me, but I would run the numbers in one year increments over and over again until I could imagine he might think I was a woman.  I figured I would have to be 19 and he would be 24 before there was even a prayer, but I had my “realistic” version too.  I would definitely have to be 21, and he would be 26.  That might work.  Only 6 years to go……


The music started.  How I wish I could remember the tune!  The guys picked partners and the couples swirled and kicked around the hardwoods, cowboy boots hitting the floor with such power and conviction it made me shake inside.  Our counselor chaperones just laughed and grinned as their wards thundered around the room.  They’d had their years of dancing in that room; it was now clearly their job to let us have fun but also to keep us from tearing down the building with our adolescent enthusiasm.

There was an older girl dancing with my Tyler boy.  I never knew how old she was.  I was convinced she had failed at least one grade.  She seemed very worn and tired, but she always chose very short skirts and purple high heeled shoes and tremendous amounts of pancake make up to cover the acne scars on her face.  Only now do I realize that she was very worn and tired, at less than 20 years old.  She and my older boy spent a lot of time together, but they never seemed close.  I suspected they had done things I could graph scientifically but lacked the poetry to describe in their entirety.


Sarah, Margaret, Kelley, me, Stacy

The couples turned to all face the same way.  Together in lines they lifted their feet and slammed the hard soles of their shoes into the floor…..ONE, TWO, ONE TWO THREE….kick!  They flowed seamlessly in their lines towards those of us who were not dancing.  They were like a wave you didn’t want to stop but weren’t sure what would happen when it reached your border.  Mercifully, they all knew how to put on the brakes before they ran over the wallflowers.

I never did this dance at camp.  It seemed like some kind of mysterious great rehearsal, and I desperately wanted to do it, but I knew I wasn’t ready.   Ready for what, I had no idea, but it just felt in my gut like a big step. My mother describes me as a kid who never wanted to been seen learning anything – I wanted to practice things that were important to me in private before anyone saw me trying them and making mistakes.  Obviously, this was a bit of a problem when it came to learning to dance with a partner.

There was a boy who crept increasingly closer to me over the week one summer.  First it was just, “Hi.”  Then, “Hi” followed by “What county are you from?”  By Wednesday it was , “Hi, Kanawha County!  Is this seat taken?”  I liked him.  He was handsome and nice and funny, but he made me nervous with his incremental growing closeness.


We were in the dance hall.  It was Friday night, the last night of camp.  The dance music started.  I saw my guy, Harrison County, walking towards me.  He reached out his hand.  I shook my head and shrank away, but I made sure to maintain eye contact and that he saw me smiling.


He smiled back and just stood where I was.  He didn’t ask another girl to dance, but sat that one out with me.  Something about that gesture lodged inside me, and I thankfully never once in the rest of my life so much as looked at any guy who didn’t have the “sit it out together” method down pat.

Jim Morrison said, “There are things known, and things unknown, and in between them are the doors.”

STOMP! is the sound of the doors of my memories at Jackson’s Mill.

Photo credits: Elizabeth Gaucher

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 2, Junior High)

This is part 2 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To read part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 2, Junior High)

The nature of friendships changes between elementary school and junior high school.  In elementary school I was friends with the boys my age who lived in my neighborhood; we played “Kick the Can” and climbed trees and traded comic books.  By junior high, though, friends are generally people who share the same interests.  I was slow to understand this transition and for a period of time in junior high I felt like I didn’t have any friends at all.  (I was also prone to self-pity!)

During this period, I frequently longed for a “best friend” – the kind of ideal companion found in books and movies.  I had a very romanticized perception of this friend in my mind, and frequently envisioned scenarios in which I would suddenly meet this guy and we would just immediately get along perfectly and want to spend every moment together.  I wanted more than just someone who shared my interests:  I wanted an exclusive, one-on-one relationship that would be deep and enduring.  I didn’t have the emotional sophistication to distinguish between the desire for a friend and the desire for something more.

For most of my teenage years I thought I would eventually be the father figure in the same kind of home in which I grew up.  I’d have a wife, some kids, a dog, and a house in the suburbs.  For many years I followed the steps I thought I was supposed to take to reach this goal.  My brother always had a girlfriend, so I felt a certain amount of pressure to have one as well.  When I was in junior high I asked a female friend if she wanted to “go” with me, and–voila– we were officially dating.  “Dating” meant we would get each other gifts on birthdays and at Christmas and occasionally go roller skating.  Eventually we broke up; I heard second-hand that she called me “slow.”  I can’t say that I blame her if she was frustrated by the pace of our relationship.  I liked her as a friend, but I was not physically attracted to her.

In the summer of 1983, when I was 15 years old, our church youth group had a discussion about homosexuality.  I don’t remember any details, but it’s one of the only youth group topics significant enough to rate a mention in my journal.  The same year, both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on AIDS.  My parents had a subscription to Newsweek, and I have vague memories of seeing TV news stories about the disease.  Still, those stories were about adult men in San Francisco and New York, people who were far away and barely more real to me than the hobbits I was reading about in The Lord of the Rings.

That summer the first hint of a self-acknowledgement of my sexuality comes in two cryptic journal entries that look something like this:


“CB” stood for “cute boys” and the initials of the boys I thought were handsome followed the hyphen.  (The initials have been changed to protect the innocent.)  

It was both thrilling and terrifying to put something like this in my journal, even in a form it would be virtually impossible for someone else to decode.

Tomorrow, part 3 of Growing Up Blind – High School.

Image credit: John Warren

Nike and Me

When I was in the 6th grade, I found Nike; or more accurately, somehow Nike found me.

Tennis was the game of choice in my family, and we were K-Swiss people through and through.  I remember my father buying me the new sparkling white leather shoes at the Charleston Tennis Club pro shop, how the shoes smelled, how it took awhile to make the soles bend just right.  But I always felt I was dressed as a tennis player when I wore my K-Swiss to school, and it felt a little odd to be “dressed” for tennis in an elementary school classroom. 

Nike changed that.

I will never forget my first pair of Nike athletic shoes.  The style was called “Pegasus,” and they were light blue with a royal blue swoosh.  Suede, rubber, and parachute fabric all came together in footwear perfection.

In Greek mythology, Pegasus (Greek: Πήγασος, Pégasos) was a winged horse sired by Poseidon.

As did most kids at that age, I originally wanted them because the most popular girls in my school were wearing them.  But there was a difference with these shoes in their long-term effect.  When I wore my add-a-bead, or my Sassoon jeans, or carried my Bermuda bag (all status symbols I didn’t even really like but felt pressure to have), I still felt like the guy dressed in a tomato costume, sitting around the campfire in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  It’s a ridiculous scene with a grown man sitting in a circle of actual tomatoes.  He’s clearly not a tomato.  But they all buy it until he accidentally says, “Pass the ketchup.”  I was always one false move away from being discovered as a complete fraud.

What dawned on me with my Pegasus shoes was a feeling of being genuine.  I was no longer dressed as a tennis player, and it was even more than being dressed as an athlete.  I was dressed as a girl who could do things.  Hook, line, and sinker I bought Nike’s belief in me as a strong, capable person with unlimited potential.  And you know what?  I’m fine with that. 

It was just marketing, I realize that now 30 years later, but it shaped how I saw myself and how other people saw me.  Some professional counselors and personal coaches equate how you see yourself and how others see you with what becomes of your genuine reality.  To a certain extent, I credit Nike with shepherding me through some choppy adolescent waters.  That company was at my side through one of the most widely recognized storms of human development, and I will always have fond memories of that time.

Like adolescent love itself, there is a degree to which my affection for Nike cannot be dismantled; unfortunately, the company seems to be trying very hard to make sure I understand they don’t require me as a customer anymore.  They have large pro teams and university contracts, and they don’t seem too terribly interested in whether or not I believe in myself through athletics and fitness these days.

The first pair of “real shoes” I bought for my child was Nike.  I’ve since switched her to Saucony, as Nike’s expanding distance from the realities of women, children, and now my home state has finally made it unavoidable that we part ways.  Someone told me last week that I was simply being “politically correct” in this belief.  I couldn’t disagree more.  This is much bigger for me than some corporate mistakes.  This is 3 decades of watching a company morph into something entirely separate and apart from the beauty of its origins.  It is the sad experience of seeing a childhood hero selling out over time and losing touch with its soul as it is blinded by greed.  Nothing about it is correct in any regard.

I still dream of Pegasus.  Fly on, little dreams.  Fly on!