Friday, April 25, 2008


Mesick, Michigan is my hometown. I have lived in well over a dozen towns: In Michigan, I lived in Delton, Hastings, Mesick, Williamsburg, Traverse City, Delton (again), Hastings (again), Hamilton, Allegan, Naubinway, Tustin, Mesick (again), Kalamazoo, Otsego, Oshtemo, Paw Paw, and Kalamazoo (again). Since graduating from college, I have lived in Indiana: Michigan City, Mishawaka, and Osceola.

Most of the moving was done when I was very young. I only completed one full school year in the same elementary school, and that was when I was in Hastings for all of third grade. After I went to live with my father, he settled us in Mesick the summer before I started junior high and promised me that I would graduate from Mesick High School. He kept that promise, and I am better for it. I have a hometown.

Having attended part of Kindergarten and a month of first grade in Mesick, I already knew some of the kids there. My grandparents had retired to the small town of 375 and my father moved us right next door to them in a little trailer. Those days were the best of my young childhood. I went to Kindergarten in the morning, walked home (can you imagine a Kindergartener walking home now?) and ran over to my grandmother's house next door, where she would make my favorite lunch, tuna salad sandwiches with tomato soup and Fritos. To this day, this is my most comforting of comfort food.

My parents divorced while I was in first grade, but even as I was bounced from city to city and school to school, I always returned to Mesick in the summer and at Christmas when my brother and I visited our father and grandparents. We played on the school playground, and went to baseball games that my old friends played in. I was allowed to practice with them, but I couldn't play in the games because I didn't live there. It was a place of stability at a time when there was no other stability in my life.

When I returned for good in the summer of 1977 (Star Wars, anyone?) we lived with my grandparents for a while, and then my dad bought another trailer on the other side of their house for us to live in. When I started school a month later (remember when school started the Tuesday after Labor Day?) I was reunited with my friends. Puberty was not easy on me, like most people. I sweat like a pig, my face broke out, and my hair was greasy. I showered every day after P.E., and then at home too, and the problem persisted. It was tough at times being the tallest kid in class as well as the most awkward, but I found that my sense of humor could overcome a lot of those feelings of inadequacy. One of my teachers, Mr. Neahr, saw my discomfort and tried to save me from being an outcast by recruiting me to play in his role-playing game club, but I thought the people in the group were a little weird. I was right, but little did I know that they were my kind of weird. I wouldn't discover that until years later. Sports were what ended up preventing me from being alone.

The only organized sport I had ever played was baseball, and that was for one year when my dad volunteered to help coach the local little league team in Tustin the year before. In my dark years with my mother and stepfather, playing a summer sport would have been out of the question. I had been forced to quit playing on the 6th grade basketball team after one day because I hadn't done a good enough job shoveling the driveway, so that gives you an idea of the importance they placed on having kids participate in activities in school. In Mesick, though, it was different. My friends desperately wanted me to play because I was tall. I had no skill whatsoever, but I was 5' 7" in seventh grade, which was pretty tall. I did the drills and learned to shoot layups off the right foot, and that was enough. I didn't shoot well, because I had never been taught how. I thought I was so bad that I didn't even encourage my family to go to the sports banquet at the end of the season. I found out the next day that I had won the Most Improved award, and that was the last time I skipped one of those. Positive reinforcement was what I desperately sought at that time, and I had denied myself the opportunity for relatively large-scale recognition.

The next summer, baseball was back on the schedule, and I happily played. I had been the best player on my sixth grade team in Tustin, but on the Mesick team, I was average. Kids were allowed to throw curveballs now, and I had real trouble with them. That didn't stop me from enjoying what I was doing, though. We played the entire summer without losing a game, traveling from town-to-town in the back of a pickup truck covered by a cap. Again, can you imagine this today? After we won, we were treated to ice cream cones at the Dairy Pit (yes, that's what it was actually called), and if any of us hit a home run, we were uprgraded to a banana split.

The acceptance that sports gave me lasted on through high school. I eventually did become better coordinated, even gaining recognition as an all-conference athlete in football and basketball. I got an honorable mention vote in baseball, but that was only for my defense. But the way I was treated because of my athletic career was important to me not only because it helped me to make the right kind of friends who would stay out of trouble, but it helped me with my eventual career choice. I helped a good deal of my teammates stay eligible academically. My teachers helped me to cement that future career.

Mr. Neahr, my junior high math teacher had seen me as walking wounded, and he was perhaps the only one of my teachers to see that. I had some other teachers who didn't look past my insecurity and simply assumed that I was just a sarcastic jerk. I was a sarcastic jerk, but there was a reason behind it.

In high school, things were different. Mesick High School was small, so we had some of the same teachers in high school as we had had in junior high. One new teacher made a big difference in my life and that was Betty Williams. Betty was a good friend of my grandmother's and she was a wonderful teacher. I still remember taking her world history class and taking time out to watch the first flight and landing of the space shuttle Columbia. I also remember one of her favorite expressions of affirmation was, "Surely." I also remember answering in Leslie Nielsen deadpan, "Don't call me Shirley." We had a great time in that class. Mrs. Williams' husband passed away while I was in high school, and the outpouring of student support at his funeral had to have really touched her. There were at least 100 students there. I had Mrs. Williams again for civics as a senior, and rumor has it she taught just one last year because another favored student and I were going to be in her class. Either that, or she retired after that year because I drove her to it. Either option is equally likely.

Mrs. Gray was another very important teacher for me. As one of two English teachers in our school, we were likely to have her two or three times in high school. I was an exception. As a junior, she was my teacher four times a day--in consecutive periods! I had her for third period vocabulary and grammar. For fourth period she was my speech teacher. I was her student assistant fifth period, and she was my creative thinking teacher sixth period. You would have thought we would get tired of each other, but that really didn't happen. She helped me with the ins and outs of teaching. I maintained her gradebook, ran off copies, and did all of her errands. She, in turn, took an interest in me and showed me what a good teacher does. Her husband also taught at our school and they both traveled 40 miles one way to get to work. Despite the long travel time, Mrs. Gray worked long hours after school with the Future Problem Solvers program and with the Drama club putting on plays. She took several of us to dinner and a play in Traverse City one night at her own expense. It was an extremely generous thing for her to do, especially considering how poorly teachers were paid at that time. Mrs. Gray remains one of my most valued role models.

Communities like Mesick are few and far between. In such small town, students are called upon to play many roles. Football players play in the band. The Future Farmers of America are scholars. Everyone has to be active in many different activities to make the whole system work. Because I was allowed, even encouraged to do so many things, I became a well-rounded individual. In my senior year alone, I was student council president, varsity club president, and class treasurer. That's in addition to playing three sports and going to vocational school half-days because I only had two classes left to take. In the afternoon, I had civics, study hall and pre-calculus. These experiences were an essential part in helping me learn to manage my time as an adult.

At the time I was in Mesick, our sports teams were conference champions again and again. Our band scored the highest marks time after time. The community was so proud of our achievements at the time that they purchased billboard space to promote all the good things that were going on in our small town. During my junior year, our basketball team lit up the town. We rolled though our season, demolishing nearly every team that came into our small gym. The crowd would literally start the slow clap, slowly increasing its intensity until it involved stomping on the bleachers so hard that you could feel it down on the floor. My ears nearly ring in the memory of some of the cheering that was done in support of our basketball team. The adrenaline rush that the sound provided was addictive. One thing our coaches made sure to instill in us, though, was sportsmanship. We didn't gloat when we won, and we didn't pout when we lost. If we knocked someone down, we offered our hands to pick them up afterward. We would do good things for people, too. I remember as we prepared for the distric tournament that year, our team bus stopped where a person had driven off the side of the road in snow. We piled out of the bus and twelve strong young men nearly lifted that car back up to the paved surface.

The capstone had to have been our state championship in baseball. I have written about this here, but I may not have been thorough enough in describing what this did for our town. If there had been someone of a mind to, they could have looted our entire town, because just about everyone was at the game. When we returned victorious, the streets were literally lined with townspeople welcoming us back. There was a huge spaghetti dinner the next night in the high school gym, and the place was packed. I have never felt such a sense of belonging as I did that year and that night. It made me proud to wear my varsity jacket around other towns. It always amazed my grandmother when people in a town thirty miles away would recognize me and say nice things about our team and our town.

Tomorrow, the Mesick Track Invitational will be held, and one of my teachers, Mr. Gray, who was a track coach and who passed away a short time ago, will be honored. Mrs. Gray will be there, and I will get to introduce her to my daughter and tell her just what an inspiration she and her husband were in my life. I hope I see all of my friends and all of my teachers and coaches.

I hope I have made them proud because tomorrow I'm going home.


Jeff said...

I remember the day you won the state championship. I also remember you showing me how many medals you had on your school jacket and you telling me I would never have that many. HA! I had way more than you. No state championships, but there were still more! I have some fond memories of your basketball games, football practices, and will never forget watching my big brother play basketball on television. Not many people got to say that back then. It was a magical time in a magical town that still reveres those few years (and still can't manage to spell our last name right!). Some things never change're still a sarcastic jerk!

Jim McClain said...

You and every track participant ever born had more medals. All you had to do was fall off the bus at a track meet to win medals in Michigan! I'm kidding, of course. My friend John Chandler, who won state in shot put and discus, literally had more medals than he could fit on his jacket.

Were we really on TV? I had no idea. I'm glad I had a good game, despite losing.

Jeff said...

Oh, I just remembered something as I was re-reading the baseball part. I played little league when I was about 11 years old. How? Still don't know, but that was the only year I played (we moved out of town). Anyway, with absolutely no coaching (I don't even think you know about this) I batted nearly .900 that year. In addition to that, I had the most walks on the team. I was the fastest kid in the entire league, so that helped a little. Seriously, I could bunt and make it to first before anyone could pick up the ball; I remember playing shortstop and chasing down the runner from third and tagging him before he could get to the plate. I was also the only kid who could throw from the fence in center field to home plate. That year we crushed every other team and won the championship--the only trophy I ever got.

Imagine. With encouragement (or even concern) where could I have gone with that? Can you imagine watching me play for the Tigers?
Thank god you got out of there.

One last thing...I went to the state finals in track. No medals, but I was there as part of the 4X100 relay team. Did you know that?

Jim McClain said...

No, I sure didn't.