The kid in 4th grade gym class

The kid in 4th grade gym class

Part of my job at work (a part, I might add, that I really, really enjoy), is hosting and facilitating a learning experience we call “Unfreezing
Corporate Culture.” It was put together by a group called Senn Delaney (you can look them up), and I’ve found the concepts that we use in that experience to be very helpful to me both in my personal and professional life. In our unfreezing sessions, we talk about how we have thought processes created throughout our life by people and events, and how those thoughts can cause us to “freeze” and not see new opportunities and possibilities. When we come to understand those thought patterns, and maybe determine that they may no longer make sense, we have what we call an “insight” into ourselves. We also encourage people to share their insights, as sharing makes the insight actionable — I have to decide what to do with it.

All of that was a very long introduction to say that this morning I had an insight, and I’ve decided to share it here and now. Feel free to hit the “eject” button now.

When it’s cold, the Camp Gladiator sessions I attend get to go inside. One of our members has arranged for us to use the gym at a local elementary school. It’s nice to exercise in a warm spot when the north wind is blowing hard outside. I’ve often made joking comments about how being in an elementary gym gives me flashbacks, and today I actually had an insight into how that environment actually affected me.

I was raised in Oklahoma (Tulsa, to be more precise). Oklahoma was a very sports oriented culture (I guess folks believe that’s how guys prove they are masculine or something). My home was no different. Early on, my Dad got me involved in baseball. I sucked at baseball. I have no eye/hand coordination. I’m not particularly athletic. I had no idea how to be better at it and had no one in my life who was particularly interested in helping me become better at it. Dad, however, loved being a coach, so I got to be part of the team. But I was never in that part of the team who were really successful. I warmed the bench a lot. I played when there was no chance I could screw up a lead. The other kids on the team made it very clear I was not considered a particularly valuable part of the team.

Gym class (hence the reference above) was a brutal experience. Each year we had fitness tests which I always failed. I was picked last for team events. I learned quickly that I was not part of the cool group of kids who excelled at sports. I was part of the out group. I hated gym class, and I hated the gym because it made me feel like I didn’t matter, that I had no chance of succeeding, and it was a place that people laughed at me.

I tried football in 6th grade. That was a failure. I was put on the offensive line because I was overweight and could, by default, block other people. I wasn’t very good. And I certainly wasn’t part of the group of kids who were good. I had been in Cub Scouts, and, when I was old enough, I started the move to Boy Scouts. As part of the introduction process, we went to camp, were introduced to all of the different tribes (or whatever they were called), and were told we could pick which tribe to be part of. The kids who were my age, who I had been around while I failed at sports, were all part of one tribe. To this day, I remember those boys coming to me and telling me they didn’t want me as part of their group and that I should pick another tribe to be part of. To this day, I remember exactly how I felt at that moment. I didn’t tell anyone about that conversation. I was in scouts a few more months, and then dropped out.

By the time I left 6th grade, I had developed a deep, painful, visceral, emotional reaction to being rejected. Rejection reminded me that I was worthless. I discovered that if I buried myself in academics, I could survive, and I didn’t need anyone else’s help to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. And even though I was able to do that, I was very much aware that I was part of the “out group”. I was so deeply terrified of being rejected that I closed myself off from other people. If I had any inkling that I would be rejected, I ran the other way. Did I realize at the time that’s what I was doing? Absolutely not. Did I repeat that behavior over and over? Like clockwork. Did it become part of who I was? Very much so. I spent a great deal of time both lonesome and lonely. But that was better than being rejected.

Junior high school was a “hit repeat” experience. I avoided sports. I hated gym. I studied hard and used that as an excuse for not getting involved with other people. By the time I was in high school, I learned to sit on the sidelines emotionally. I connected very well with teachers — who I suspected knew exactly what was going on — but didn’t connect well with other students. I had acquaintances, but no real friends. And when I graduated from high school, I put Tulsa in my rear view mirror. I had no real intention of every going back. But who I am followed me, and, throughout my life, and I’ve never landed anywhere that my emotional ties to people or places said “you should stay here.” In short, I’ve stayed on the sidelines emotionally, and been very reluctant to get emotionally tied to anything where I might experience rejection.

At Baylor, I was deeply attracted to sociology and psycho-sociology. I have to wonder if that was me trying to understand this in group/out group thing that I had struggled with all of my life.

So what’s the insight? Today I realized that kid from the 4th grade gym class is still very much alive and kicking. Many of my relationships — personally and professionally — have failed due to my fear of rejection. I am intimately aware of the “in group” and very much aware when I’m not part of it. When I even suspect there’s a chance of rejection, I do exactly what that little kid did — I emotionally go home and bury my head in a book. The emotional walls go up pretty quickly; the emotional walls come down very slowly. There’s still this deep belief that it’s better to be lonely than risk being rejected. I’m not really sure how much success I can have at opening myself to the possibility of being rejected — that kid has been a part of my life for a long time — but it’s something that I can be aware of in my relationships at home and work.

I think now about that kid in the 4th grade gym class, and I wish I could have talked to him about what he was experiencing, how it made him feel, and what do to about those feelings. I hope that anyone who gets to this point in this tale, and has children in their life, makes sure to spend time talking to their kids about how they are feeling about what’s happening in their world; what they experience and feel today will have effects upon their lives for decades. I wish I could go to that kid in junior high who always ate lunch by himself, and invite him to be part of my group and tell him that he’s pretty cool. I hope that anyone who reads this encourages the children in their lives to reach out to those awkward and lonely people and discover the incredible power of a lasting friendship. I wish I could find that young adult who felt so very alone and often retreated into alcohol to mask it and take him out to a movie and have a long conversation about our place in the universe. I hope that anyone who reads this becomes aware of that person who is hanging out on the “fringe,” and invests the energy to invite them into the party.

Another quote from the great Marcus Aurelius: “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” It’s really very true. I wish I had understood that earlier in my life.

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