I believe in the lesson that middle school cross country teaches all who participate.
This lesson is that everyone can cross the finish line. Getting to that finish line demands perseverance, determination and courage. Teammates will provide support, but each runner will have to endure the trial that exists between start and finish.
For the past eight years I have had the privilege of coaching cross country running for Brooklyn Middle School. Each season begins with 45 to 55 fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders attending the first day of practice. Many fifth graders turn out because cross country is the only sport open to them. Others will come out to be with their friends. Some will come because they’ve heard that everyone makes the team and a very few will arrive because they’ve already discovered that running makes them feel alive and happy. We will run a timed mile on the first day of practice. A quarter of the students will stop to walk at least once and some will punctuate long walks with shorts bursts of running. Many will make the alarming discovery that running is work.
Taking attendance at practice is more like taking inventory of adolescence. To the “heres”, “presents” and “whats?” are the more individual responses like “Red Sox Rule” and “he quit”. Seventh and eighth grade beauty queens frequently have to be chased out of the locker room even if they’re unhappy with their look, which, with any luck will soon be streaked with sweat. As we walk through the woods to get to practice some kids will be picking berries to smear on their face, others will be hiding off the trail hoping to scare an unsuspecting teammate and several students will ask me “do we have to run today”.
We will stretch and run some combination of distance, strength and speed exercises. There will be jokes, complaints, and attempts to bargain the distance or even the direction we will run. At the end of practice, the younger students will beg to have the remaining water in the jug hurled upward so they can compete to become the most thoroughly soaked.
I believe in middle school cross country because no runners’ “playing time” is purchased at the expense of a teammate. Everyone starts. I believe in middle school cross country because students at all levels can be challenged. As much as students compete against each other, their primary competition is with the course. Every runner who crosses the finish line is applauded. Unlike any other sport, cross country finishes are often marked by the wonderful spectacle of a slow runner, sometimes a physically challenged runner, approaching the finish line accompanied by a phalanx of teammates who have already finished, and sometimes even students from other teams.
I believe in the values that middle school cross country teaches: commitment, honor, courage. I also believe in the powerful lesson it teaches: That the challenges ahead, however long or steep, are made easier by the presence of teammates. And, of course, when you show up for cross country practice you have to run.
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