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The Far End of the Bench | Jason James Barry

1989. Timing then was everything. And I found then, time was running out. Waiting until the end of next spring to get a varsity letter — in track no less — wasn’t going to cut it. I found myself calculating when I could get custody of an actual letter — sewn on my jacket — in time to be seen actually wearing it. It would have to be fall or early spring or of course in winter. But by the time track season would end and award ceremonies came around in the warmth of late spring — and followed closely by graduation — a thick wool letterman jacket would be useless to me.

It was with this scheming and contemplation that I realized I was a fraud, or willing to be. To be what they wanted, or what I thought I needed to be. For me though, there was no reversal of fortune that came with hard work and more drills and more time in the weight room. I just wasn’t good, really at anything, never mind at one of the marquee sports at my school — basketball.

I had sat bench then been cut then sat bench again in a spiraling masochism of team lineage that got me as far as JV — the participation trophy of teams. After freshman year, I saw a handful of the popular kids, who, rather than gut it out, wisely and casually left sports, as if captaining and starting all the awesome teams no longer pleased them and had just been a passing fancy.

I stayed on, seeing the dominos fall, one brand-name after the next, them moving on to other things, maybe they just couldn’t hack it. But I was keeping on, still in and calculating my odds at better and better, in spite of me overlooking my actual, ever shrinking gains in ability and standing.

And at some point I had my reckoning, my realization that I hadn’t started or even played meaningfully in even one game, that I somehow had become part of the stockade of defenders the oversized and gifted freshman were cutting their teeth on. I was the Ensign Johnson beamed down with Kirk or Spock and predictably shot dead in every episode. And with a creeping, persistent numbness, I realized I was a scrub, past-due on potential and left filling the far end of the bench.

In one of my last, unmemorable games, the fakery had worn, the coach no longer veiled his pretenses, and neither did I — with me sitting back and chatting through all of the plays and with no allusions about pulling off my warmups. At the near end, and with the game’s fate assured (another loss — again!), the coach mouthed his offer to sub me in for the last minute. I shook my head and waved him off, polite as I was, and leaned back knowing I never wanted to play for his fucking team again.

Next fall, with just senior year left, I would find myself slogging through on the AV club in making my way, under the guise of learning techniques in scene framing and storyboarding. But I was really there for the side deal, to tape a season of home games for varsity basketball — for the team I would get cut from by the coach I swore the season before to never play for again — in exchange for a varsity letter. And I did it all for the ladies, the girls who would finally take notice once I amassed some sort of status in this bacterial petri-dish we all seemed to exist in.

It was like being cajoled into eating a cat turd by that guy who held sway who you never got along with who you had to impress for reasons that make no sense except in the moment. So yes, I’ll go on-record as saying there are, or were, ten different cheerleaders I would have eaten cat shit for and done a hospital stint for dysentery for — if that’s what it came down to with the varsity basketball coach in the way of them. Which it did.

So, just short of that — I unapologetically and fully geeked myself out for a season of videotaping from the bleachers, and far from on high, making the highlight reels of all the someone elses. Task done and turd swallowed, the athletic director called me in to make good on the coach’s bargain. He handed me off the letter, transactionally so, a sealed wax paper envelope he kept in his desk, its translucence displayed a maroon and white varsity letter, unmistakably, with its looped and tufted embroidery and a golden sports pin, given with the reluctance of a father who lent out his car — accompanied by a raise of his brow — as though he was party to awarding a war medal I didn’t earn or like I was a kid out of his league in getting a hot girl’s phone number I would never know how to handle.

Not surprisingly, the world didn’t tilt right with this loose worn, false dignity. Everyone still knew who I was, and more so, so did I. For all of us, it seemed, we each dragged this overstuffed sack of our histories, from kindergarten on, and at some point there were no more surprises left in who we could be, each of us typecast and locked for our four final seasons.

Perhaps inevitably, by the end, as months dwindled to weeks before graduation in mid-June, after four years of high school, with my must-have and much-sought prize, I found myself less and less concerned with what everyone else thought or whether they thought of me at all. At some point before having left high school, the letterman jacket I had to have simply became a coat in my closet that I knew I would feel too old to wear, just the next fall.

The wonderment of high school no longer enchanted, the jacket and varsity letters and lunch cliques and sports teams and yearbook signatures, the parting pen quips, all what I once clamored for like a glitz-struck fan, all since middle school, I no longer sought them, not the approval from classmates I’ve known since forever nor the mementos of them. Before the light dimmed on its final day there, I was seeing high school as it really was, my passage with kids I grew up with — that after 12-years of school and a lifetime in town together — I was finally no longer tethered to any of them. And that left me to start being me.

Jason James Barry is an award-winning essayist and journalist. Follow his work on and at


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