When I was in ninth grade, we played baseball for P.E. They put the boys and girls together, flabby-armed beginners with junior varsity. I wasn’t especially good, but I could hit a double.
On my team was a boy named John. He also played on the school team. When he threw the ball, you heard it go by. He was tall and lean, with the most incredible dark brown hair thanks to at least one Latino parent. No question he was a cool kid. I was thirteen, skinny and awkward long before they were virtues. John and I didn’t breathe the same air. It was nothing hostile—just two people on separate planes of reality. John shaved, while I could pass for eleven. He had 20/20 vision, while my glasses were so thick I could have killed insects with them. At no point had John and I been thrown into a situation that required eye contact. I had no ambitions above my station. The chosen ones did their thing and I did mine.
High school P.E. had a way of taking the fun out of sports because it forced us to play with kids we hardly knew, openly despised, or dreaded to meet in a hallway. But with our permanent records at stake, we went through the motions. Baseball was tolerable and sure beat cross-country (two loops and go!). And even being at school couldn’t stem the heartening crack of the bat. My face got sweaty behind my glasses, my hair stuck out from my ponytail and my socks itched. I did not and still do not have the poise of a girl who, after being catcalled replied ‘High school boys don’t excite me.’ I took whatever position I was given, ran fast and clapped for my teammates. Far as John went, no one blatantly worshipped him. We simply took it for granted that he was a higher life form and followed his lead. He didn’t talk much, but he didn’t have to. His 80 mph pitches said it all.
One day I was playing short stop. The batter hit the ball, sending it into left field. John scooped it up and shot it to a boy behind me. The boy hurled the ball, which headed straight for my melon. I dropped to the ground, letting the ball go its merry way to the second baseman. The hitter was tagged out. We were about to celebrate when John walked up to the first boy. Without preamble he said “Man…if that had hit her, my foot and your posterior would have met in a violent fashion.” Or words to that effect. He didn’t yell at the boy—just got all squinty-eyed. The boy looked so mortified I felt sorry for him. John silently returned to his post, while the boy and I watched him go. Who was that masked man anyway?
Everybody knew it was an accident. The boy hadn’t deliberately aimed at my head, so no one thought to say anything. Except John. The funny thing is, John hadn’t talked to me before and didn’t afterward. A month or two later we moved, and the inscrutable John became a memory. But over the years, I have mused about my silent sentinel. If someone nearly hits another person, a passing stranger might say ‘be careful next time’, if they say anything at all. John threatened bodily harm to someone who had almost hit a person he never talked to. But clearly I was wrong about going unnoticed. In any case, I learned a lesson that day—you never know who’s got your back.