A family we know pretty well recently moved into our neighborhood and allowed us to install a basketball hoop on their property. They love it too, so it’s a win-win, but they have more room than we do, and in Tokyo, a place of no space, this is no small favor. For two weeks now, my son, Bailey, age 11, has been spending every spare second outside shooting hoops.
Bailey is now, and has always been, an interesting kid – a real bundle of contradictions. He’s an athlete, excelling in most sports involving a ball, but he has a soft side that lets him easily climb into his grandfather’s lap even now and tell him how much he loves him. At bedtime, he wants to be tucked in, but never kissed near school. He plays the violin beautifully, with great coordination, but is a major klutz, falling down often. He loves to play with babies, but also loves rolling in mud. Part of this is the fact that he’s nearly twelve years old and straddling the line between childhood and full-fledged teenager-hood. But part of this is just Bailey being Bailey.
In recent weeks, Bailey has had a pretty rough go with things. He’s in a very small school and doesn’t really have a close friend there. He knows a lot of nice kids that he speaks to and plays with at recess, but there’s not that one best friend who likes the same things he likes or does the same things he does. He’s graduating this year, finishing sixth grade, and is ready to move on. The five other kids with whom he will graduate feel exactly the same way – the classroom has become too small for them and they are ready for the bigger adventures that await them.
Last week, Bailey’s teacher called my husband and me to ask if everything was okay; he was so quiet and solitary in the classroom. We responded that he’s just trying to get through the last few weeks of school without any conflict. For all of his sweetness and kindness, Bailey can also be a troublemaker and an attention-seeker. In the past, he has poked at the other kids until they notice him, or tried to get them to do things his way. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong which will serve him well in the future, but currently gets him in trouble with other kids if he complains that something is unfairly done or played. Now though, he feels past all that, but has realized that the damage is done with the other kids in the class. It’s too late to forge better relationships, he feels. It’s better to keep to himself and he has decided to just put his head down and plow through the last weeks of school. He’s sad, but realistic. I haven’t felt like I can step in on it; this is his way of handling things.
The basketball hoop, however, has revolutionized things. Every day after school, he runs into the house, says hello to me, drops his bag, and runs right back out with his basketball to shoot around. For at least an hour on most days, he shoots basket after basket without another care in the world. He’s a good shooter. He plays on a city team in Tokyo, one that’s made up of half foreigners and half Japanese. He’s a pretty good player in general and when he joined the team last year, it made him feel like a million bucks – a place where he can excel and put his energies. But the team practices twice a week and the hoop is there for him 24/7. He shoots out his frustrations and his angst. He shoots out his little hurts, both real and imagined.
This afternoon, I decided to go out there and shoot with him. I don’t love basketball, but I can shoot a decent basket and it was a warm afternoon with a bit of breeze. Perfect for shooting baskets. We played a game of “around the world,” and Bailey whipped my butt. He was kind about it – allowing me extra shots and bending the rules a little. We chatted as we played. He told me about something that happened on the playground at recess. He told me about the book he’s reading. He mentioned something about his sister’s birthday that I had forgotten. We talked a little about the other kids in his mixed-age classroom and how he likes being among the oldest in the school. He even said that he’s so excited for the summer and the four weeks he will spend away at camp. All of this happened in about twenty minutes while we dribbled and shot, dribbled and shot. Hook shots. Jump shots. Layups. Swishes. Everything.
As we played and talked, I could see into the future and the young man that he will become. I see a strong, sensitive person who needs reassurance, yet, slowly but surely will learn to stand on his own feet. I see tough transitions and difficult classes, but also exciting sports, dances, friends and activities. I see hard work, homework, and new avenues of learning opening up – connections and ideas and growing every day.
But mostly, I see basketball. Tons and tons of basketball. For both of us.