by Braden Bell
Last night, I had a remarkably moving experience in a most unlikely place.
I should preface this by noting that we live in a rural part of the South. Most of the people in our community would be easy to stereotype. Nascar, hunting, guns, sports, thick dialects–these are people directly out of a snarky Howard Dean speech.
Stereotypes aside, they are generally good people and I have come to love them. To be sure, when dealing with contractors, mechanics, coaches, or other dads on school trips, I slip into a Southern drawl (a theatre person, my articulation makes them think I am either British, homosexual, or incurably stuck-upâ€”or maybe all three).
One of the very big things in our very small town is Little League. Here, you start when you are 3 or 4, and then you move on up, generally staying with your teach and coach until you start â€œHigh School ballâ€. Parents bring their camp chairs and watch EVERY practice. Newcomers who register their children are tolerated, but generally shunted to a â€œspecialâ€ teamâ€”of all the other newcomers. This team, of course, is promptly eviscerated by every other team in the league.
This is serious business, folks. This year, our 2nd grade daughter wanted to play basketball. She was put on one of these teamsâ€”the athletic equivalent of a go-cart patched together with baling wire and bubble gum. She was on a co-ed team. In her league was an entire team of 2nd grade girlsâ€”many of whom are her classmates. If her team was the go-cart, this team was shining new Nascar race car. They were pretty good. When my wife wondered aloud why our daughter hadnâ€™t been put on this team, another parent looked at her with a shocked-are-you-crazy sort of expression, shrugged her shoulders and
said, â€œTheyâ€™re going to play 4th grade ball together.â€ The way she said this not only made it clear that this was the most obvious question in the world, but also that 4th grade ball was very important. I suppose it is similar to a crack combat unit being trained to deploy for a difficult, vital mission. One would not just throw a beginner in that mixâ€”it would ruin morale, discipline and endanger the vital mission.
I really detest this sports-clique mentality. It informs the social structure of the town to a remarkable degree and the team your child is on, confirms (or removes) status upon the parents. Then, of course, there is also the tobacco spittinâ€™, camo wearinâ€™, good old boys who have nothing to do with me.
But, the children want to play, and they need exercise, so we sign them up and grit our teeth. Last night, I went to pick up my son from baseball practice. I arrived early, so I stood watchingâ€”my new black microfiber raincoat standing out against the layers of sweatshirts and hunting gear the other fathers (all of whom watched the entire practice, half of whom are helping to coach) were wearing.
They finished, and the coach called out for the boys to come gather around for a talk. He is tall, skinny guy with a heavy dialect. His teeth are crooked. He chews and spits regularly. I wouldnâ€™t wear his clothes to work my garden. He doesnâ€™t have Sunday practices (which we like) because he wonâ€™t miss â€œthe big raceâ€ (ie Nascar!). There is nothing about him that suggests refinement, sophistication, or even intelligence. It would be easy to look down at him.
He runs through the practice schedule for the next few days, spits a few times and then announces that he likes to say the Lordâ€™s Prayer at every practice. He tells the boys that they donâ€™t have to do it, and theyâ€™re free to leave. He takes his cap of and kneels on the ground. 13 grubby, chubby, 10 and 11 year old boys who are about as collectively couth and genteel as a cow pasture do the same.
He begins: â€œOur Fatherâ€¦.â€ His accent is so thick that it would be hard to caricature, but he speaks with an astonishing degree of sincerity and humility. The boys repeat, â€œOur Fatherâ€¦..â€ He leads them through the prayer, getting some of the words wrong, mispronouncing others. â€œTha kingdum commâ€¦tha weel be dunâ€¦.â€ Finally, â€œAwh-main,â€ echoed by his team.
â€œThy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.â€ Last night, on a muddy ball field in a po-dunk Southern town, an uneducated good olâ€™ boy of no worldly significance or accomplishment, knelt, doffed his cap and taught his boys to pray as best he knew how. The words were rote, but the feeling was genuine and reverent. Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™ve ever prayed with the childlike sincerity that this man had.
Last night, the Kingdom came a lot closer, and, for a moment, earth was a great deal like heaven.
Braden Bell is the proprietor of his own blog, but has been too busy to do much with it lately. He is married with 4 children and lives outside Nashville, TN. Braden is currently working on his dissertation at NYU in theatre and
education. He likes NPR, classical music, Harry Potter, and Dickens.