Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coming of Age

Miguel played tackle football with a girl this past Saturday, and I was the chaperone.

He and Lyla, who is also 11 and lives a couple of blocks away, scootered past me as I drove in the neighborhood after officiating at a wedding. They took turns passing each other and then jumped off the curb, executing some scooter maneuver whose name I can never remember.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine,” they both said, which is slightly better than “Nothing” or “I don’t know.”

“Hey dad,” said Miguel, “Can you play football with us?”

It was 95 degrees outside and not quite 4 pm. I was almost indignant at his request.

“No,” I nearly screamed. “It’s boiling out here. I am not playing football right now.”

“We just need you to be the quarterback,” Miguel implored.

After ten minutes of pre-teenager persistence, I agreed to toss the ball to each of them.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Lyla, who has two younger sisters. Her parents are very sweet as well. All of them moved into the complex about a month ago. “But we always compete against each other.

A week or two ago, she and Miguel joined a few other neighborhood kids and Lyla's father, James, who coaches Lyla’s soccer team, for a spirited game of soccer in the park outside our home. At one point, Miguel sprinted alongside Lyla, trying to prevent her from breaking away for a goal. She zoomed ahead of him and he elbowed her, causing her to tumble to the ground.

Later I said to him, “So the only way to beat Lyla is soccer is to knock her to the ground.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.

Yeah, right.

Since then, Miguel and Lyla have engaged in friendly but moderately intense competitions against each other: Soccer, skateboards, scooters, basketball, even baseball. They’d basically split the various contests and saw football as another opportunity to school the other person.

Once we got to the field, Miguel said, “We’re playing tackle.”

Tackle? What exactly was going on right in front of me? I played co-ed tackle football in high school during a Jewish youth group outing at Penwood State Park in Bloomfield. I thought the object that day was to play tackle football. Being the naïve nerd that I was, I didn’t realize that several of my male friends saw tackle football with girls as a quick and relatively hassle-free way to cop a feel of a member of the opposite sex.

Given that Miguel is younger than I was then and certainly more naïve and innocent, I wasn’t worried that he was anticipating a grope-fest with Lyla. On the contrary, he has yet to express any interest in females as sweet and lovely beings who get our hormonal motors racing. In fact, he becomes incensed if I even tease him about girls or girlfriends.

A few years ago, one of his classmates at the Greenwood School in Mill Valley was Monet Weir, daughter of Bob, a member of the Dead. “Miguel, I’d love to be in-laws with Monet’s parents.”

Miguel cringed and he appeared ready to belch fire at me.

Last year, I attempted some psychological matchmaking when I said, “So is Sela your girlfriend?” Sela is a very outgoing and fun-loving kid who I saw as a perfect complement to Miguel’s more reserved but active nature. Plus her dad teaches PE, so he'd be a great in-law to welcome into the family. He’s a Games and Fitness God.

Miguel’s response, though, was to basically threaten me with bodily harm when I joked about Sela. Two weeks ago I finally declared that I would no longer tease him about girls. As Miguel approaches adolescence, I know I risk alienating him at a crucial time in our lives if I persist in joshing him about girls or anything else. So I stopped.

But when Miguel said they were playing tackle, I did pause for a moment to ponder any deeper pubescent meanings behind his statement. But all he added was, “I’m going to school her.”

“I hope you’re not taunting,” I responded.

Lyla got the ball first and she and I lined up about ten yards from the sidewalk, which was the end zone. The rules were simple: four chances to score a touchdown. Lyla crouched slightly behind me. I handed her the ball and she ran right into Miguel, who wrestled her to the ground. On the next play, I lobbed the ball toward her and she scampered a yard or two before Miguel tackled her. She finally broke free on the next down and scored.

When it was my turn to quarterback for Miguel, he wanted to run as well. But given that Lyla had never played football before, I thought that was unfair. So I passed it to him. Lyla grabbed his jersey and eventually managed to drag Miguel to the turf.

“Lyla, grab him around his waist,” I called to her. “It’s easier to bring him down.”

She and Miguel traded touchdowns twice, so the score was tied, 2-2. It was broiling hot and Lyla was ready to quit. Miguel had the ball, so I said, “Next touchdown wins.” Then I proceeded to make a few poor passes on purpose because I didn’t want him to win. I didn’t want to him to lose, either, but I thought a tie was a successful outcome. And neither of them complained when the game ended after the ball soared past Miguel onto the grass beyond the sidewalk. They raced over to Lyla’s house to cool off into the wading pool.

A couple of hours later, as dusk settled on the neighborhood, a gaggle of girls came upon me and said, “Where’s Miguel? We want to meet Miguel.”

For reasons that defy human logic, Lyla’s father invited all 21 members of her soccer team for a bonding sleepover and 12 accepted. About eight of them stood before me, a pulsating mass of giggles and energy and female determination, and asked me to help them find Miguel.

“I’m sure he’ll show up,” I said.

And he did, completely oblivious that he was the object of their desire in ways that probably made little sense to any of them.

Miguel is growing up right before us. On one hand, he voluntarily sat on my lap yesterday when we studied Hebrew together after school, a gesture of innocence and immaturity that I treasured. But he has also taken on more responsibility in and out of the home as he earns our trust. And now he may have a crush (which might be reciprocal) on Lyla. I am just happy that they are friends and can share a love of sports and playing outside.

My chaperone duties will resume later in the school year at the 6th grade dance in the spring. I have been assured the event involves no tackling or tossing of any pigskin objects. Touchdown!

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