A Lesson Not Taught

The Tuesday after the next

Coach Dan knew practicing just three days after Rex’s injury would be difficult for the team, but he also knew cancelling would only exacerbate the psychological wound that had been inflicted along with the gash to Rex’s arm. As his sneakered feet squeaked down the wide corridor to the cafeteria entrance that afternoon (late for the start of practice due to a mandatory faculty meeting), he wondered who would show today; obviously Annie (We are having practice this week right? was the message she’d left on his school voicemail), most likely Juan (not being at regionals he hadn’t witnessed Saturday’s tragedy), and . . . no other names came immediately to his mind. Both Butch and The Bird were distraught at seeing Rex injured so badly, blood streaming like water from a burst hose out the gash in his arm, turning his gray lame crimson. Coach Dan shook his head, shuddered; yes, this practice was as important for him as it was for the students on the team.

Reaching the end of the corridor, he walked left through the open cafeteria doors — and saw something he hadn’t expected to see this academic year, perhaps not ever for however long he would continue coaching the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

The students who still attended the school and had been at more than one fencing team practice the last three years — Coach Dan couldn’t be sure, but judging by the numbers this had to be all of them. Close to thirty students, many who hadn’t been to any practice that year, some who hadn’t been seen close to two. Coy, OK, Big and Little Paul — Micky, Zeph — of course Annie was there, standing next to Jimmy at the center of an uneven semicircle formed by past and present student fencers, even Butch and yes, The Bird, lingering outside the semicircle.

“Daniel.” He felt scores of eyes turning towards him like search lights at the sound of Jimmy’s voice. “You hear any more, ’bout that boy?”

“Nothing recent.” The semicircle morphed, forming around their coach. “He went home this morning, sure you all hear that.”

“Been sleeping a lot.” So great was his disbelief, Dan was certain he had mistaken the identity of the voice behind him. He spun, saw that he had not been mistaken after all as Double-J’s caustic gaze fell on him. “But he was up this afternoon, made him eat. Won’t be coming back to school this week, doctors orders, and — ” he uttered a solitary, scoffing laugh — “obviously, he ain’t gonna be fencing any time soon.”

Annie walked in front of Coach Dan, her brown pony-tail waving at Double-J behind her. “I talked to everyone, we’ve got meals planned for his family, next couple weeks.”

The volunteer fencing coach and seven-year high school English instructor at Bark Bay put his hands on Annie’s shoulders, nodding with approbation — “Thank you.” Then turning back towards the semicircle of students, he laid an arm across the back shoulders of Annie, who embraced her arms around his round stomach; sweeping his other arm into the air, Coach Dan called for attention.

“Most of you here today — came for a few reasons, all related to Rex. To find out what really happened on Saturday, to hear how he’s doing now — ” he waved the arm behind him, towards Double-J — “but most importantly of all, because you care for Rex, love him like the big brother he’s been to many of you.”

He felt mucus forming in his throat, covered his mouth and coughed, let his arm fall to the side. “What happened to Rex on Saturday, no words are adequate to describe. Accidents such as that are rare in fencing, but when they do happen they can be quite grisly, as those of us who were there can attest.”

He glanced to his left, saw the team’s equipment sacks, unopened, leaning against the short wall in front of the stage. “People ask me all the time — teachers, students, people in town — why I’m a fencing coach. And if I have the time, I give them the full story, from that time I met ol’ Josef — ” his emphasis drawing the appreciative giggle of recognition he expected — “but mostly there’s no time to get into all that, so I just say that being a fencing coach, allows me to see my students learn lessons I could never teach, insights I could never hope to provide in any classroom.” He caught the eyes of Butch, standing at the far left of the semicircle, and quickly but pointedly made his way across the sea of faces in front of him. “And I can see today, you’ve learned one of those lessons — that none of us are alone.” He felt Annie squeeze his stomach. “None of us, needs ever feel that we’re alone.”

A slow, sharp clapping of hands from the equipment sacks. Coach Dan turned, saw Double-J frowning. “Nice speech, Jacobs. But if you don’t mind — ” the burly teen stooped down, picked up a saber, lifted it along with his body up, the weapon pointing directly at his coach — “some of us would like to get ready for States.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 19]


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