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.

Broken Shells by Melanie Bartol Jones

Melanie Bartol Jones lives in Raleigh, North Carolina,  with her 3 girls, dog, and husband. Growing up, Melanie and her family moved every two years because of the Navy. This constant moving taught her how to notice details about people, places, and things, and mostly about herself. Constantly showing people who she is became an art and an opportunity to edit her story. Sports became a natural way for Melanie to fit in wherever she was, and she went on to play lacrosse at Brown University. Melanie’s life continues to be filled with details, physical activity, and change. One role she never imagined was becoming a preacher’s wife. But her husband is an Episcopal priest so the label stuck. On a daily basis she can be found volunteering for her kids’ school, reffing lacrosse, teaching pure barre, whipping up meals for 20, and realizing she may never be on The Today Show. Melanie’s writing focuses on the daily struggles of who she is going to be when she grows up and other faith questions. Check out her latest escapades and thoughts at Not Your Preacher’s Wife.

Editor’s note: I especially like Melanie’s series of “I want” statements that rhythmically wind down this essay. The whole thing is rhapsodic, almost as if the writer is speaking in a kind of trance that lets truth flow out rather than stay hidden. Thank you, Melanie, for sharing your writing.

Broken Shells | by Melanie Bartol Jones

Once I strolled down the beach with my mom when I was a little girl. We were looking for shells after a long day of salty air and strong sun and my eyes were tired. To be honest, I did not really want to be there except my mom and I always looked for shells together and there was no where else to go. I kept staring at the grains of sand and could only find thin, cracked shells that had been tossed one too many times in the powerful arms of the ocean.

Although my mom did not want to pick those shells up, I thought they were the most beautiful ones. Their colors were the most vibrant and I imagined that if they could talk, the broken ones would have the most interesting story.

When I look into the mirror, I often see that same cracked beauty of a tough sea shell. My eyes become blue lapis, a strong stone with material value and warmth. The lapis makes others want to possess me and makes me feel worthy to be bought like a jewel. They give me a basic commodity of value. But I can make them as cold and strong as the ocean that breaks the fragile shells. Then the other, weak sea creatures know to stay away from me.
But no one person is always the sea or the weak shell, or even the highly valued lapis stone.A mirror’s reflection can be as deceiving as the undertow of a fierce ocean. The water can have a pulling strength that overpowers the innocent swimmer before she is aware that it exists. That artificial vision in the glass sneaks up on me, and who I see becomes someone I don’t know and never want to meet.The pulling strength is something my mom always told me to avoid. “Only go in up to your elbows when there is an undertow,” she said.

This way I was evenly matched with the ocean because I could walk on top of it. I could sink my toes into the cool mooshy sand for stability and my arms could punch at the slapping waves. Then I returned to shore and the warm sand with beautiful broken shells. But looking in a mirror, there is no strategy to overcome the pulling force; unless, of course, you only take the quick glimpse. This way the freckles don’t really form on my hidden cheek bones and my large forehead does not overshadow my lapis stones. Others do this, too. A quick “How are you?” or compliment keeps you above water and out of danger, trapping the pain of experience behind the material wealth of lapis.

But I want to swim out so far I can no longer see the shells or the beach or the mirror.

I want to swim with my ribs rubbing against the sleek grey skin of a dolphin.

I want to go underwater and open my eyes until the salt stings all the color out and I can let the pain flow into the strength of the ocean and help someone else.

I want to blow bubbles to the top of the water until I no longer need lungs and I can still keep swimming.

I want to feel the grit of wet sand under my nails, the kind that is bothersome when building sand castles, and have it file my fingers down to become part of the ocean floor.

I want my hair to tangle in the seaweed and force my head to stay underwater and I don’t want to struggle. I don’t want to fight the strength of the ocean anymore.

I want to be a part of the ocean and use it’s strength, it’s beauty, and it’s undertow to help me see the mirage in my glass.

The beautiful cracked shell. Where does its attraction come from? Although the edges are rough and cutting, the tops are smooth from being tossed among salt particles. Its rough journey makes each shell more individual and more precious. All of my shells have rough edges and beautiful stories. And perhaps the rough journey is why so many cracked shells end up on dry land. Maybe the ocean became too much, the shell was not ready or willing or able to become sand and yet it was too tired to resist the strength and the temptation of the unknown.  The warm dry sand with funny looking people searching for them becomes comforting. The cracked shells wait on the shore to be picked by some tender hand and admire for its beauty. They wait to take on an easier transformation than the one required by the ocean. Be part of a lamp in a summer rental or glued securely to a picture frame or someone’s modern beige condo.

It’s always the cracked ones who wait longer. The perfect ones, who did not change, get picked first, making their lives enviable and sweet. But not me and my shells. We wait on the beach for some person to choose us because all the boring, beautiful ones are gone. But we have the story and strength of the ocean to carry through the rest of the journey.

I pick up a cracked shell and show my mother. She stares into my lapis chips and finds the beauty in me and my purpose in picking the broken shell.

She knows the strength of the story because she has her own broken shell. The one that whispers of dolphins and seaweed and salt water. The shell that brings the strength of the undertow and knows the beauty of a rough edge and a smooth top, and the beauty of a crack which gives a purpose and its own powerful story.