James and the Rule of Mediocrity

My P.E. coach in 6th grade had this astounding lecture,

“If our fathers and grandfathers settled for mediocrity there would be a swastika on the roof of that gym. Instead of this (hand over heart) you would be doing this (Nazi salute).

I remember him pointing at the wide steel roof that glared the end of the school year sun on us as we itched in the grass, and he scratched his balls.
Coach said a lot more than that, but all I remember is him cocked towards us like he was in the wind up of a pitch, which I suppose he was- and pointing, his index finger bent towards the sky, the spit –stained brim of his ball cap pulled tight down over his eyes.

A veteran of the Vietnam war, he would then inventory his distinctions from the mediocre, the average, the lazy.

“I’ve got a steel plate in my head right here”.

The taut index finger would vibrate away from us and land on his right temple. “Four surgeries to repair this knee”, the finger would pivot over to the left knee.

“Mediocre never would have got me home”.

None of us doubted that Coach was tough, hell, he worked us like prisoners in a Red Army work camp. There was hardly a boy in that class who couldn’t run a sub six minute mile at 12 years old, or do 1200 jump ropes on command. Knowing that he had to let us get on to our next classes; pre-algebra, shop, band, whatever-was the only thing that kept many of us from jumping the fence and running for home, and he was winding up now.

“So who here wants to be mediocre?”

James, who maybe hadn’t been listening, or truly didn’t understand the question, or the more obvious yet unthinkable option- he understood the question quite clearly, cautiously raised his hand.

We look at him like the dead little boy he was. Coach Downs summoned him to the front and catching his shoulder in a vulcan pinch walked James to the fence line and said one word,


For all I know, James is still running for that infraction, that honest response that, OK, mediocre was fine with him if it came right down to it.

Did James know why he was running, or did he just not care?


7 Responses to James and the Rule of Mediocrity

  1. As a parent looking over my kid’s report card, here’s how I think:

    A = Hell, yeah. Naturally.

    B = Well, he did well and probably
    had a little fun too, so good
    for him.

    D = That’s a protest grade! He
    passed but he’s thumbing his
    nose at the man all the
    same. I’ll need to be
    officially disappointed, but
    we all know there’s probably
    some individuality lurking
    underneath this grade.

    F = That little outlaw! He
    doesn’t give a fuck!

    C = Snore. Sinking feeling.
    Average = invisible.

    Now, if I could only figure out how to get him to actually run when we get to the fence.

  2. To put your hand up in the face of Coach in the middle of one of his “lectures” is not mediocre, it’s sheer power. James pulls the strings, no matter how tough the puppet.
    The mediocre kids were all standing around not listening, and considering whether they need to shower today before going on to math.

  3. Sadistic coaches are cut from the same cloth. My sophomore year of high school, we unexpectedly had a school assembly called at the beginning of gym class during the excruciatingly painful “track” quarter of our year. Coach Lee Kidd sarcastically told us we’d have to miss out on the running that day. One kid just as sarcastically cried out in mock disappointment. Five minutes later we were all dressed out on the track, assembly be damned, and the kid was a marked man the rest of the quarter. Boy learned to keep his mouth shut at crucial moments.

    In my house, a C means compliance with the letter of academic demands but not the spirit, and so has some of the rebellion Sasquatch attaches to a D. My boy seldom goes so far as to get sent to the fence. It’s a cost/benefit thing with him.

  4. Interesting insights gentlemen. This is a cycling blog, although just barely, and so in this post I am asking myself, if I am content with mediocre, will a swastika one day cover the “Earth Cruiser” sticker of my ride?

    If Coach D saw me now (and he still coaches) he would no doubt ask, “Well, are you happy where you’re at?”

    And who of us is?

  5. Coach sounds like Dagney Taggert in “Atlas Shrugged”. Ayn Rand would be proud. By the way, when did you change the subtitle to your blog? Your “one man vs. the world” crap was kinda inspiring. Now you sound as if the world won.

  6. the world does get its licks in, but the subheading has been revolving thorugh reader-submitted slogans. And I’m resting, for real.