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