Justin stood in his best friend’s kitchen shifting his weight from foot to foot as he watched Matt meticulously lacing his new basketball shoes, precisely adjusting the tension on his foot at every set of eyelets. He’d been at it for five minutes and had only inserted the laces into, and fine-tuned, the first three of the nine sets of eyelets on each foot. Justin thought he might explode if he had to wait for Matt to finish at this pace before they could leave for the school. It was the first day of Georgetown Middle School’s Summer Basketball Camp. Justin checked the watch on his wrist against the daisy shaped clock hanging above Mrs. Fisher’s kitchen sink. Matt began the fourth set of eyelets on his right shoe. He threaded them, pulled the laces straight up, wiggled his toes, tightened the right lace, wiggled his toes, loosened both laces a little, wiggled his toes again, looked satisfied and moved on to the fourth set of eyelets on his left foot.
“I can’t believe he’s making me wait like this,” Justin thought, “It’s just not fair. I’d never treat him this way. I mean, I managed to get up and be ready on time. Why can’t he? But then nothing is ever actually fair anyway. You can always find the injustice if you care to look.” He watched as Matt calmly began to work on the fifth set of eyelets. He inserted all four ends into the holes, pulled them through, and checked them. Finding one twisted, he removed it, turned it over and reinserted it, pulled them tight and began the toe wiggling again. Justin felt his head was about to explode.
“Oh, you could have done this over the weekend, couldn’t you?” Justin finally exclaimed.
“Huh? Done what?” Then looking up at Justin and sensing his exasperation and impatience for the first time, Matt checked the clock on the microwave and replied, “It’s only 8:25. We don’t have to be there ‘til 9:00.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think we should…I mean, we don’t want to…Well, you know! You could have done this last night,” Justin finally finished not really knowing what else to say. He realized they were, in fact, still running pretty early, but he also realized that he didn’t care how early they were, he just wanted to move. He knew he wouldn’t feel at ease until they were sitting in the gym, ready for the camp to begin. It was almost all he had thought about for the last couple of weeks.
“Relax,” said Matt, and continued his lacing at a much faster, yet still careful rate. He finally finished, took the shoes off, dropped them in his bag, and put on his old sneakers. A couple of moments later both boys were outside dribbling down the walk.
It was only 8:45 when they jogged up to the school gym doors, but when they pushed them open and entered, they were surprised to see that they were still not the first to arrive. Justin was doubly surprised to notice that the one person who had beaten them there was his friend Ernie. He and Ernie had been in the same math and science classes. And although they enjoyed being lab partners and attending math field days together, Justin had never once heard Ernie mention basketball. They went over and joined him on the bleachers.
“Hey, Ernie,” Justin greeted him, “I didn’t know you wanted to try out for basketball.”
Ernie greeted his friend with a weak smile. “I don’t, but my parents think I spend too much time reading and on the computer. They think that this is just what I need. ‘Get involved, bring me out of my shell, et cetera, et cetera.’ Could be worse I’m sure. They might have enrolled me in ballet,” he said trying to sound like a good sport about it.
“Oh,” said Justin considering Ernie’s awkward position, and then tried a sympathetic laugh that only made it as far as pathetic.
“Sounds rough,” commiserated Matt.
“I’m not worried about these two weeks,” Ernie went on. “It’ll be just like a very prolonged gym class. I can endure that. What I dread is mom and dad pestering me to practice all summer for tryouts next school year.”
“Well, if it helps any, you could practice with me some,” Justin offered.
“You mean with us,” Matt corrected.
“Really? That’d be great. Thanks,” Ernie sighed, and he looked like a drowning man who’d just been thrown a life preserver. “That should satisfy my parents that I’m getting involved, and if I practice away from home, they won’t always be watching over my shoulder for progress.”
“By the way, Ernie, this is Matt.”
Ernie looked at Matt. “Nice to meet you. I can use friends here. Incidentally, my dad’s name is Matthew too.”
Justin laughed. “Well, Ernie, he only wishes his name was Matthew, right Matta?”
“You’re so funny,” Matt replied, giving Justin a light shove. “He’s right, though. My name isn’t Matthew; it’s Mattlig. It’s Swedish. It’s been used on my mom’s side of the family for a long time. ‘Matta’ is one of my mom’s baby nicknames for me.”
“Oh, I see,” said Ernie. “Actually I think I can empathize. My name is,” he paused, took a deep breath and continued, “Erasmus.”
“You’re kidding,” Matt said, incredulous.
“You’d just have to know my parents,” Ernie said. “Mercifully my grandmother dubbed me ‘Ernie’ when I was a baby. Still, there’s always the first day of school and roll call in every class, when I have to give my nickname to each new teacher. You might know what I mean.” And then to change the subject he asked, “So, are you really interested in basketball?”
“Yeah, and most other sports,” replied Matt. “My dad says now is the time to try them all so I can settle on something before high school. So this summer it’s basketball.”
The three continued discussing the camp although it was mostly Matt who talked and Ernie who listened. Ernie soon discovered that Matt was the type of person who could talk to almost anyone about almost anything for almost any length of time. Luckily Ernie was the type of person who could listen well, with genuine interest, and in fact Matt was interesting to listen to most of the time.
Justin sat beside them engrossed in his own thoughts about the upcoming weeks. He hadn’t been quite able to believe it when he’d heard about the camp. It wasn’t a real camp, as far as packing your clothes and staying away from home went, but that didn’t bother him in the least. It was a day camp. The boys simply reported to the school gym three hours every day for two weeks. All Justin cared about was getting as much out of it as he could. He’d always loved sports, especially basketball, and he would finally be old enough to try out for a school team rather than youth league when he entered seventh grade in the fall. He’d been looking forward to that chance for the past couple of years. So when the announcement came that the school athletic department was going to offer this new program, Justin had been so excited thinking about it that he’d almost missed his bus. They would be getting training from the school’s coaching staff, and he figured along with all the practice he did on his own, he would really have a good chance of making the team, maybe even getting on the first string. He assumed all the starting positions would go to eighth graders, but he could still hope to be one of the top substitutes. The wooden gym doors creaked and four more boys entered. Soon Justin counted 28 boys, 15 of which would be chosen in the fall to play on the school team.
When the coaches finally came in it was just after 9:00. Many of the boys were like Justin, waiting impatiently for a chance to move and burn off some energy. But first there was talking; announcements about schedules of practices, scrimmage games, preliminary tryouts, and more.
Justin had just begun to lose track of some of the information and to wish that the coaches had prepared a handout, or that he’d thought to bring a notebook and pencil, when a movement at his side caught his attention. There was Ernie taking it all down, even in outline form, in a ring binder, as calmly and naturally as if he’d been in class. Justin sighed in relief, knowing that his friend would be glad to let him copy it. Then he saw that he wasn’t the only one who had observed Ernie. A boy on the next set of bleachers was elbowing the guy beside him and smirking as he jerked his head in Ernie’s direction. The second boy rolled his eyes and then looked back at the assistant coach who was taking his turn talking.
He was introducing the trainers who would be helping during the summer sessions. He explained that they were students studying to be teachers and coaches and were all attending college on basketball scholarships, which made the boys as anxious to work with the trainers as with the coaches. As interesting as it was, the boys were getting tired of the talking and antsy to move off the hard bleachers, so they were relieved when the coaches went off to the storage room for basketballs.
As soon as they turned to go the boys all began to stretch and fidget and talk in low tones, except for the boy who had noticed Ernie taking notes, who practically bellowed at him.
“Hey, pencil neck, you can go home now; science class is out for the summer.” The small group around him laughed loudly.
As the laughter waned the boy next to him yelled, “Maybe he’s looking for the cheerleading tryouts.” Another wave of rude laughs rose from the group.
Justin’s face turned beet red, and he nearly growled under his breath, “Some people are so…” Out loud he said, “Why don’t you two mind your own business.”
Ernie turned a calm face to Justin and said, “Hey, Justin, relax.”
“What?” Justin looked incredulous. “Didn’t you hear how they were talking to you?”
Ernie was still calm. “What they think or say about me is their concern, not mine.”
Justin spluttered, “I don’t even pretend to understand that, but…”
Just then the coaches returned with the equipment, and half the boys, including Justin, Ernie, and Matt were called to the floor and taught a warm up drill, while the other half, including those who had taunted Ernie, were given sign up forms and pencils. In about fifteen minutes the groups traded. Then, when all the paperwork was taken care of, the entire group was taught several skills drills that they were to practice in their own time. Justin didn’t need a notebook to remember those. This was what he’d come for. He could hardly wait for the afternoon so that he’d have all the time he wanted to practice each one.
As they walked home together though, Justin recalled the name-calling incident and said, “Man, those guys were burning me up yelling at you, Ernie. They make me so mad I could punch them.”
“They’re pretty much always like that,” Matt added. “The first one who yelled is named Brandon, and the other is Todd. I had two classes with them last year. They’re actually a year ahead of us, but they had to retake ’cause they’d failed. Anyway, they were always picking on people, usually smart, nonathletic types, no offense, Ernie.”
“None taken,” Ernie replied, “But guys, they don’t really bother me. I mean why should I get bent out of shape because they’re rude or insulting? That’s nothing really to do with me. ”
Justin stared at his friend in disbelief. “Because it’s directed at you! He’s slamming you!”
Ernie seemed unaffected by Justin’s emotional explanation. “But it doesn’t change me. I’m still the same. He’s the one who’s got a problem with me, not the other way around.”
“What? I just don’t get you, Ernie,” said Justin shaking his head in disgust. He was beginning to wonder if he knew Ernie at all, in spite of the time they’d spent together.
Ernie seemed pensive for a second. “Well, I am not the one who is being critical or finding fault, you see.”
“Right. We understand that.” Justin said impatiently. “But would you mind explaining why you don’t care if Brandon slanders you in front of a gym full of guys from our school, some of whom will end up being our teammates. I mean these guys aren’t going away, Ernie. And Brandon was trying to humiliate you.”
“I realize that. But I didn’t feel humiliated. A little embarrassed when everyone looked at me, but not humiliated. What he says doesn’t really have anything to do with me. The things that matter to me are those that I allow in my mind, my heart, and so on. They come out in what I say and do.”
“Hold on, Ernie, I thought you were just a regular geek. Now you’re sounding like a twinkie.”
“Maybe so, Justin. But let me finish. What he says and does comes from what he has allowed inside him. Whether it has come out or not, it is still his, not mine, even though I see or hear it. So what Brandon does or says is outside coming into me, my ears, eyes, whatever, right?” Justin was just standing there with his mouth hanging open so Ernie continued, “If his opinion mattered to me it could even hurt my feelings, but that’s still something coming into me from outside, right?”
Justin looked doubtful. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Ernie continued, “Well, that doesn’t touch me, my spiritual self, I mean. Because it comes out from him, that’s his problem, not mine. What comes in even if it did hurt my feelings couldn’t hurt the true me. But if I get mad, hate him, or try to get even, that comes out of me. Those reactions would be because I had allowed a lot of crappy stuff to fester inside of me, and would hurt me spiritually.”
Justin had become so incredulous that he was finally calm. “Well, that might seem logical to you, but I’m not so sure, and I know I don’t see it that way.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ernie.
Matt looked at Ernie, confused, “Sorry about what?”
“Just sorry he doesn’t get it,” said Ernie.
Matt seemed satisfied.
“Well, here’s my street,” said Ernie. “I’ll see you in the morning at the school.”
“You may as well walk in with us if you don’t mind an early start,” Matt quickly offered. “But, Justin doesn’t want to miss a second of camp.”
“Sure, thanks,” Ernie accepted. “Early isn’t a problem. What time do you guys start?”
“About 8:30,” said Justin.
“Ok, I’ll meet you here,” Ernie called over his shoulder as he turned toward his house.
As they continued home Justin couldn’t help bringing up the talk they’d had again. “What do you think of what Ernie said about Brandon and Todd?”
“I don’t know,” said Matt. “It seems a little weird, but I guess it’s his business.”
“Yeah,” Justin agreed. “I’ve been his friend for a while, and I always knew he was weird about some things. But I never would have dreamed up anything as strange as this one. I mean, can you imagine just not even caring about a whole gym full of guys thinking that you’re a complete wuss? Or just letting a couple of jerks walk all over you like that?”
“Well, not really,” Matt admitted. “But he seemed sure about what he said, and isn’t it better, after all, if he isn’t bothered?”
“I don’t know,” Justin said skeptically. “He’s my friend. If he lets those guys walk all over him, what will everyone think, even about me? And maybe I should try and help him out.”
“What do you mean, ‘help him out?’” asked Matt warily.
“I’m not sure,” Justin answered. “I’m going to have to think this over some. Hey, do you want to practice together this afternoon? ”
“Sure,” Matt agreed. “Want to come over after lunch?”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” said Justin.
They were now nearing Matt’s street. “Ok see ya later,” he said as he turned up his street with a wave and sprinted toward his house.
For the rest of the day Justin was engrossed in the basketball drills he’d been taught, but even when he and Matt practiced there was a nagging at the back of his mind, as if he was trying to remember something. Later when he was in bed trying to stop the review of the drills that was going on in his head, so he could sleep and be ready for another day of camp, it came back to him. Those jerks who teased Ernie. He would have to do something about that, but what? Ernie seemed so convinced in his thinking. How could Justin make him see how wrong the situation was, and that they couldn’t just ignore it? That would be letting them get away with it and that wasn’t right. Then Justin realized how tired he was, body and mind, and knew he’d have to solve the problem another day because sleep was taking over.