My son’s voice recently dropped from alto/tenor to baritone/bass.

Now I occasionally get these calls from someone who sounds like James Earl Jones. “Would you please bring my lunch box to school? I left it at home this morning.”

I can imagine, and I have observed, the effect this new voice has on a boy’s sense of self.

Nowhere is it more apparent than on the wrestling mat, where, in previous years, Josh always deferred to his opponents.  At the end of the season, he accepted his participation medal with unalloyed joy and good-natured, self-deprecating good humor, and pride.

I respected and appreciated the grace and resilience with which he was able to lose without it spoiling his enjoyment of the sport.

However, because I could not go back to my childhood and tell myself that I had the potential to be average or better-than-average in sports; that I had latent gifts of physical strength; that my shortness of breath was exercise-related asthma, and not a moral failing… Because I could not go back and tell my childhood self that I could learn to swim a straight line through perseverance.

I could have been a competitor. I could have been somebody…instead of what I was, which was a quitter.

I saw my childhood self in Josh during his first two years of wrestling, when he was always a deer in the headlights, intimidated and pounced upon by those giant slavering cats.

I feared that one day, years from now, he would wonder what he might have accomplished if he could have imagined himself differently…If he could have been more confident; if he could have cast himself in the role of a kid who could also win.

But, in losing, Josh showed extraordinary resilience, buoyancy, and good sportsmanship.  Unlike me, Josh mastered the virtues of losing–which is more difficult, when you think about it, than winning with grace.

Anyone can lose, but to do it without deterioration to morale or motivation is a gift.

Some kids are so intent on winning, so accustomed to winning, and so completely committed to winning that when they are defeated finally, it can only be to another alpha wolf. Submission is unnatural to them, and must be ripped away forcibly. Afterwards, they seem physically and emotionally destroyed.  The toughest come away tearful, or sobbing.

I didn’t need Josh to be the best. I just wanted him to know that he was as capable of sometimes winning as other kids.

This year, this season, for the first time, my son stepped onto a wrestling mat like a half-starved predator. He intimidated, pounced on, and pinned his stunned opponent.

I have a confession to make. I did not see it. I was there, in the bleachers, looking down at my phone.

I looked up. I thought Josh’s match was about to begin, but, in fact, it had just ended.

Yes, I know. I am a horrible person. I shall never live it down.

In my defense, wrestling tournaments are at once horribly overstimulating and mind-numbingly under-stimulating. The chaos caroms off of every surface like a migraine in a skull. This tournament was a three-ring circus under harsh lights, with even harsher seating.

It was Josh’s first victory, his first taste of triumph. And I had missed it.

At the next tournament, I did not take my phone out of my pocket. I saw everything.

It was as if he had been released from a cage.  He dropped and pinned his opponent like a panther on a gazelle.

“Did you see it?”

“I did!”

And I have to say, I was as happy about that win as I had been about anything in my entire life.

Two years I had waited for this. Two complete seasons.

In the next match, Josh encountered another carnivore. He wrestled valiantly round after round until, exhausted, he offered up his throat for a quick end.

He told me the other day that participation medals should be phased out. He thinks going to every practice and showing up at every tournament, suffering every loss and the occasional bloody nose does not merit a nickel-plated plastic medallion on a ribbon.

I could not disagree more.  Participating is not nothing. Losing is not easy.  For some of us, it is a long passage indeed, and one that we have to get through intact before we can have our first taste of victory. I did not make it through that passage, but Josh did. And I’m so proud him!  

Anyway, a participation medal is not first, second, or even sixth place. It simply recognizes that one has participated.

For two years, that medal meant something to Josh.  And I admired that kid with the high voice and low expectations for being able to enjoy a sport which so thoroughly schooled him in the virtues of defeat.

This post previously appeared on Observations and Surmisals.


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Jess Barmack lives with her husband, 13-year-old son, three dogs, three horses, and five cats on a small farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She is a freelance writer and editor. She has written several short stories, short plays, and over 85 personal essays. She recently finished writing her first novel.

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