A Lesson on Manhood Courtesy of a Special Olympian

“Will you be my girlfriend?” he beamed, smiling as wide as the sky. My jaw dropped. “But Carl, I’m a boy. Not a girl.” 

This is a story about that tender, coming-of-age moment in every young man’s life: his first kiss. And how, for me, it in no way, shape or form resembled the one I’d hoped to have as a young man. But, like many things in life, sometimes the unexpected turns have the most to teach us.

The story begins in the hills of Maine, where I grew up ski racing. Ever heard of Olympian Bode Miller? Well, I went to the same ski academy as he did. Never made the US ski team, but went through all the same year-in, year-out training and challenges, many of which simply focused on character-building and teaching responsibility. The headmaster at the ski academy believed strongly that the school and its athletes should give back to its community. In addition to us helping the mountain out with various efforts like clearing dead trees off of new trails, or leading the late night candle-light parades down the mountain at holidays, we were also required to spend one day volunteering at the annual Special Olympics event on the mountain. Each and every student was to partner up with one Special Olympian, and give them a personal all-day ski lesson to prepare them for the race. Yes, this struck fear down our spines. We had no idea how to coach, let alone coach people who were severely handicapped, and we were all secretly half-worried we’d just end up laughing at these poor guys. So we were treated to an appropriate amount of sensitivity-training beforehand, and assured the headmaster we’d all behave maturely and patiently, and do the best we could.

♦◊♦

My personally-assigned student was named Carl. I assumed he was roughly my age at first, due to his general shyness and height, but would soon find out he was over 30. Like most of the Special Olympians, Carl was fairly impaired, mentally, but could carry on basic simple conversations and had pretty strong physical control of his body. He’d skied a few times before, but never raced, and my job was to teach him the basics of navigating around the gates of a slalom course (a daunting task for any non-disabled adult) and ideally coax some degree of aggressiveness in him that might put him in the running for a medal.

We started off on the bunny slope so I could assess his basic skill level. As we were about to snap into our skis, I realized we had a problem: his ski boots were on the wrong feet. If you know anything about ski boots, wearing them even ‘normally’ is akin to Chinese foot-binding, so having them on the wrong feet is like something you might undergo in an Iraqi torture chamber. But Carl didn’t seem to notice. When I pointed it out to him, he humbly said, “I’m sorry.” I tried to point out there was no need to apologize, but he must be uncomfortable and maybe we should switch them. But by now he was busy just looking around, absolutely mesmerized at the snow around us. “Where’d they get it all?” he kept asking. I just explained broadly that it fell from the clouds, but he argued vehemently, “No, snow doesn’t come from the sky, dummy! It comes from a snowcone store!” Suddenly I was the one with alleged mental deficiencies here. But I decided that perhaps now was not the best time to get into a lesson on celestial weather patterns and the physics of precipitation. Suddenly he asked, “Hey, can we get a snowcone?!” I quickly improvised, saying, “I think the snowcone store is closed today,” then convinced him we needed to fix his boots. I knew if any of my coaches saw me trying to teach him how to ski but left him with boots on the wrong foot, I’d be asked to hand in my skis and hit the showers. As changing ski boots is no easy task without a bench and a carpeted floor—neither of which we had in the middle of the slope—I had him just lay back on the snow and changed them myself. The whole thing was not unlike an adult changing a baby’s diaper, I now think back, and must have looked like something from a Monty Python skit to onlookers from the nearby chairlift. I know this because right then, one of the girls from the ski academy—Stacy Bolystead—skied by and fixed me with a critical eye. Stacy was the hottest girl, in the school—exactly the type of girl I’d like to have had my first kiss with. “Having fun?” she asked, skiing by with a much more adept partner than I.

♦◊♦

Once we got our boot situation righted and snapped into our skis, we took to the slopes. Carl wasn’t half bad. He had no technique whatsoever, and didn’t understand the concept of pole-planting to initiate each turn, but he had good basic physical stance and balance, and could keep himself upright, which is more than his fellow competitors could say. As I looked around at the many other students on the hill that day, I felt comparatively lucky.

And so Carl and I went to work on his technique. I gave various tips in as clearly-as-possible language as I could muster. “Now Carl, to help us turn better, we start off with a pole plant in between each turn to get a little rhythm, like this.” Off I’d go for a few turns to demonstrate, then hike back up to coax him to repeat what I’d just demonstrated. Carl would proceed to completely ignore my instructions about the pole planting. But I realized he was imitating my up-down motion in between the turns without me mentioning it. I realized that maybe the trick was to not explain things, but to just do them, and hope some deeper, more subconscious part of his mind would pick up on them visually, rather than auditorily.

As the afternoon wore on, Carl became markedly more confident. Our conversations on the chairlift were hopeless (he never could remember my name, though extended me the courtesy of asking me each time), but he was definitely skiing better. I finally tried him out on a slalom course the coaches had set up for training. I explained the concept of going around each pole and the concept of “rules” that need to be followed; pass one on the left, then the next on the right, back and forth, back and forth. But he ignored all that and went for a free-for-all, using the poles as a random playground; things that would be fun to ski near or around, but with no real logic governing his navigation. I demonstrated a few turns, but it was clear that in his mind, we were doing the exact same thing, just generally skiing near the poles in some playful fashion. The more runs we took around the poles, the further away we got from him actually following the proper line.

♦◊♦

But, damned if he wasn’t having a helluva time.  His smile was so big he was literally drooling at the end of each run. I even grabbed a few Kleenex from the dispenser they had at the bottom of the chairlift to clean him up a bit.

And while I worried the coaches would berate me for having failed to instruct me properly, I later learned that none of the athletes would really be expected to follow the proper line. And I soon relaxed, thinking, “Hell, he’s probably having more fun than he’s had in months.”

It certainly showed in our next conversation on the chair ride up. “Buddy?” he asked, which had become my default name.

“What’s up, Carl?”

“Will you be my girlfriend?” he beamed, smiling as wide as the sky.

My jaw dropped. I barely even knew where to begin. Dumfounded, I replied, “But Carl, I’m a boy. Not a girl.” Surely, after all this time, he couldn’t possibly think I was actually a girl, could he? I mean, all mental deficiencies aside, this was pretty emasculating. What the fuck else could possibly go wrong with this day?

My jaw dropped. I barely even knew where to begin. Dumfounded, I replied, “But Carl, I’m a boy. Not a girl.” Surely, after all this time, he couldn’t possibly think I was actually a girl, could he? I mean, all mental deficiencies aside, this was pretty emasculating. What the fuck else could possibly go wrong with this day? I thought to myself. I knocked it off to my wearing goggles and a hat, obscuring me. And I did have pretty long hair at the time.

“You won’t be my girlfriend?” he asked, deflated.

I decided to throw him a bone: “Carl, I’d be glad to be your girlfriend if I was a girl, but since I’m a boy, I just can’t. You have to be a girl to be a girlfriend. Those are the rules.” I was getting fond of invoking this term for clarity’s sake.” He waited a few seconds. I wondered if the logic was sinking in.

Suddenly he came back to life. “Now will you be my girlfriend?” as if an appropriate amount of time had passed so that the rules now no longer applied, or had recently been rewritten. We were approaching the end of the lift, and I had to get him ready to dismount, so I flatly replied, “No, Carl, I’m a guy, and guys can’t be girlfriends. Let’s go.”

♦◊♦

We went about our next run, and he seemed to have forgotten the whole girlfriend matter, thank God. I figured it was behind us.

Then he spotted one of his friends in the chairlift line. “Charlie!” he belted out, trying to get his friend’s attention. Charlie eventually turned around. “Charlie! Look! This is Matt.” he said, pointing to me. “She’s my girlfriend!” I was trying to remain my composure, and uphold my commitment to carry out the day with patience, understanding and maturity, but there were so many things wrong with the situation I couldn’t even keep count. A) He had failed to remember my name, but had come close with ‘Matt.’ B) But surely he know that ‘Matt’ is not a girl’s name, so how had he discarded that fact in order for me to be his girlfriend?

Not wanting to embarrass him in front of his friend, I still felt the need to stand my ground. “Carl, I can’t be your girlfriend, since I’m not a girl, remember? The rules?”

“Yep, you my girlfriend now,” Carl nodded, as if he’d settled the matter, consulted with the appropriate authorities and had it written into law. For the next 30 seconds as we worked our way through the chairlift line, he informed a good 10 other people—most of them strangers—that I was his girlfriend. I figured it would only take another 30 seconds to spread across the whole school. But, had to say: he was the happiest stud in the world. None of my protesting made a chink in his newly-found armor of joy.

I looked at my watch, and realized I only had to hang in there 10 more minutes and we would be returning the athletes to their staff, so I figured, “Whatever, I can let this slide for 10 more minutes.”

We rode up in silence for most of the last chairlift ride. Then he said, “Thank you for being my girlfriend.” I thought for a second again about correcting him, and instead replied, “No problem, Carl. Glad you had a good time.”

But I underestimated how this would embolden him. He leaned over and said, “How ’bout a kiss?”

I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. I repeated my basic logic about the whole ‘not being an actual girl’ clause, but it didn’t matter to him. He was having the best day of his life and he would not be denied a kiss from his new girlfriend. “Just one kiss?” he asked. “No kiss, Carl,” I said. “Those are the rules,” I reiterated. He quieted down.

Then, sure enough, after waiting a good 15 seconds, he tried again: “Now can I get a kiss? Please?”

Fuck it, I thought. This poor guy’s not exactly gonna be getting a lot of tail in his day. Might be the first damn kiss he’s ever had, at age 30, or whatever he is. I looked around, figured no one was close enough to see anything, and gave in. “Fine, Carl. One kiss.” He went in and planted one on me. That’s when I realized he had a nice furry beginning-of-puberty mustache—as if the whole moment could have gotten any worse. And sure enough, there was still a bit of slobber from his drool-worthy trips down the slopes. Whatever, all we had to do was make it off this chair, then I’d be done with the whole ordeal, and could go try to find a brain surgeon to have my memory permanently erased.

And sure enough, the one kiss was enough. He raised his hands triumphantly as if he’d just won the Gold medal he would be going for tomorrow. Anything after this would just be gravy for him. While I was half-nauseous from this wholly unwelcome romantic adventure, I felt I’d given him something more valuable than any other kid had gotten from the afternoon’s training. He’d have something to brag about for the rest of the year to his friends. I just hoped he’d continue to misremember my name.

And while it was certainly not the first kiss I’d had in mind for myself as a 14 yr old, it was one of my first big lessons about being a man: if you can triple someone else’s happiness just by sacrificing your own pride for 30 seconds, you should probably go ahead and do it. As much as the events themselves certainly weren’t filled with joy for me, damn if he didn’t have the happiest day he’d had in years, and there was a certain satisfaction in that. And the other thing it helped me understand about making someone happy: you might set out thinking it’s one thing that will do the job, but often it’s something else entirely.

You just have to listen. And be willing to be a little flexible.

Of course, just as I was saying goodbye to Carl, who in the world should possibly ski by? Stacy Bolystead, who had apparently been a few chairs behind us on the lift.

“Oooh, la-la,” she said. “Get a room!”

 

This was originally posted on Mark Radcliffe’s blog, with the main image. Inset image: Forest Service Northern Region / Flickr

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About Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe is a writer living in New York City. He has a weakness for bourbon, jazz and girls who can drive stick. You can read more of his essays here: www.theradcliffescrolls.tumblr.com and http://markradcliffe.com.

Comments

  1. awesome, compassionate, articulate. Great story, thank you for posting this.

  2. What’s with all the scare quotes around every word?
    “Teach,” “student,” “athletes.”
    Got it. He’s not a real athlete because he has a disability, and as someone with a disability, you couldn’t possibly teach him anything, so he’s not a real student, either.
    Get it? He has a disability, so none of his achievements are real!

    • Please, lighten up. He is describing his first effort at working with a person with a disability, at which time he was fourteen. You have to understand and forgive a little bit of immaturity. Compassion should be appreciated, no matter if it fumbles with the right words or punctuation.

  3. This was phenomenal. Thank you!

  4. Mervyn Kaufman says:

    A beautiful story, beautifully—and courageously—told.

  5. Great story, teared me up,I have a handi-capped boy much like Carl, and yes you made him very, very happy with your bravery. Everyone needs to spend time with the Special Olympics, You will not believe what you you will learn about yourself.

  6. Erik Proulx says:

    Great story Mark. I did a little volunteering at the Special Olymlics during college and Deepsky is right. What I learned about myself far exceeded anything I could teach. Those kids are there having an amazing experience, regardless of internal or external conditions. As should we all.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Really nice story, my friend. Glad I finally got to read it.

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