Where I grew up in Pittsburgh we didn’t have “Middle School”. Instead we had something called “Junior High School”. But don’t get overly consternated by the slight difference in name. Other than the fact that Junior High is made up of only grades 7 and 8 (as opposed to grades, 6, 7 and 8) I imagine it’s pretty much the exact same cesspool of acne, insecurity, and drama that you experienced during your Middle School years.
(Note: If you went to Catholic School K-8 then you’re no doubt familiar with a slightly skewed variation of this same acne/insecurity/drama concept that also included Nuns. Lucky you. The at-large therapy community would like to thank you for keeping them so gainfully employed for all these years.)
My best guess is that Andrew W. Mellon Junior High School, circa 1982, had somewhere around 600 students in grades 7 and 8, roughly half of which I’m guessing were boys. For reasons that I have yet to completely understand, the largely unspoken but totally understood rule for boys at Mellon Junior High School at that time was that when winter came around, you joined the wrestling team.
Didn’t matter if you had never wrestled before. (Most of us hadn’t.)
Didn’t matter if there was any prayer in hell of you being a promising wrestler. (For most of us, there wasn’t.)
Didn’t even matter if you had even a remote shred of interest in the sport. (I’m guessing most of us didn’t.)
It was widely understood within the asbestos coated walls of Mellon Junior High School that boys joined the damn wrestling team or faced a solid two years of bullying, taunting, and ostracization. And that was just from the GIRLS. Or at least that was the message as I understood it at the age of 12.
And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that joining another sport would get you off the “wrestle or be relegated to the bottom rung of the Junior High social ladder” train to oblivion. It didn’t work that way at Mellon Junior High School. The wrestlers considered everyone else in the school to be pussies, but none bigger or pussier than the basketball players.
I realize this makes absolutely no sense and completely contradicts the long held tenet of middle and high school existence which states that jocks are jocks are jocks and as such, they don’t really waste their time picking on other jocks when there’s a whole school full of band-o dweebs, and chess club nerds to pick on, but for whatever reason, Mellon Junior High School didn’t operate this way.
The wrestlers, even the bad ones, were STILL higher in the social pecking order than the basketball players. Crazy as that sounds, it was true.
Remember when I said there were roughly 300 boys at Mellon Junior High School?
There were 45 7th graders and 55 8th graders on the wrestling team.
That’s 100 boys in all or roughly 33% of the school’s male population.
As I recall, there were 8 kids on the Mellon basketball team. Total. Counting 7th and 8th graders.
And not because they didn’t have enough uniforms or couldn’t afford to keep more kids on the team.
Only 8 tried out.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one who got the message about Wrestling vs. Basketball.
As for the sport of wrestling itself, if you’ve never done it before or if, like most Americans, your only experience with “wrestling” (quotes intentional) is the world of Hulk Hogan and the WWF, let me try to give you the shortest overview possible of the sport.
The goal of wrestling is to use a combination of strength, speed, agility, aggression, and tactical maneuvering to completely humiliate your opponent in the center of a big rubber mat in front of all of his schoolmates and every single girl he’s ever had a crush on in his life, while wearing an incredibly revealing form fitting piece of polyester.
Or something to that effect.
If you’re thinking “win-win-WIN! Where do I sign up??”, then wrestling is the sport for you.
If you’re more focused on the revealing uniform and crushing humiliation parts, wrestling is decidedly NOT the sport for you.
Would it surprise you to know I fell squarely into the latter category?
To further complicate matters, wrestling was a winter sport just like basketball, meaning, you had to pick one or the other but you couldn’t do both.
To further complicate the furthering of the complication I just mentioned, I was really good at basketball.
I was tall for my age, I had good hand-eye coordination and was much more temperamentally suited to the idea of “dribble-pass-shoot-score” then I was “rub your forearm across opponent’s face until lips bleed then place knee firmly into his solar plexus”.
Let me throw out one other thought about wrestling: it’s a great sport for short, stocky guys with a lot of body density and muscle mass but it’s a really shitty ass sport for tall, lanky, gangly kids with the body density of a wax figurine and the relative muscle mass of a #2 pencil.
To put it another way: in 7th grade I was 5’5” and weighed 90 lbs.
Which category do you reckon I fell into?
Now, if you’ve humored me by reading this far you’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, this is a no-brainer. He hated the idea of wrestling and knew he wasn’t going to be any good at it and he really liked basketball, so OBVIOUSLY, he ignored the soul-crushing winds of peer pressure and decided to try out for basketball, right?”
Clearly, you didn’t know me when I was 12.
I never even entertained the notion of trying out for basketball.
Not even for a second.
Of all the endless series of potential catastrophes that alarmed me at the age of 12 few alarmed me more than the possibility of “not fitting in”.
From a clinical perspective I think they call that “normal adolescent insecurity”.
From a “it really happened in my life” perspective, this is called a “what the fuck was I thinking?” moment.
As expected, I hated wrestling.
And my hatred for the sport was matched only by my complete inability to be even marginally successful at it.
I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t strong enough. And I sure as shit wasn’t mean enough.
And yet I dutifully wrestled in both 7th and 8th grade without even the slightest consideration of quitting in favor of playing basketball.
When I finally escaped the tepid and hormone stained halls of Mellon 2 years later and moved on to High School, I did give a moment’s thought to trying out for the freshman basketball team.
But for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me, I skipped the tryouts.
I seem to remember feeling like having not played basketball for 2 years, my skills had likely atrophied and my knowledge of the game had been leap-frogged by other 14 year olds who hadn’t fallen into the same wrestling trap as I did.
In hindsight, I can see that probably wasn’t true. Or even if it was true, I would’ve done myself an exceptionally big favor by just trying out for the damn basketball team anyway because even getting cut from the team might have provided a bit more of a sense of closure than I feel about things now, more than 30 years down the road.
So, is it a bit of an overstatement to call this decision to join the wrestling team rather than the basketball team the biggest mistake of my life?
After all, I was 12.
And it’s not like I haven’t made much, much bigger and much, much harrier mistakes in the years since.
But in truth, it’s not that far off.
And here’s why:
There are many flavors of mistakes in the world and they are as much a part of the human condition as drawing in breath.
But to knowingly proceed with a decision that goes against all your internal instincts, one that you know is wrong before you’ve even acted on it, all because you are worried about what others may think about you, is the biggest mistake of all.
Even if you are only 12 years old.
Note to self: Remember to tell kids this story. Could be useful to them.