Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.
Track meets were trying experiences for the students and coaches of Brooklyn Arts Academy, a small school with no prior PSAL (Public School Athletic League) teams. The PSAL does not differentiate between big schools and small schools in track (meaning our tiny team had to go up against powerhouse schools like Boys and Girls High School). Moreover, there is only one venue for the entire city. So on almost every Saturday in February and March, our kids had to bring themselves from Brooklyn all the way to the 168th Street Armory (easily an hour commute) only to sit around most of the day before they got their chance to race.
A single track meet might have 40 teams and a single event, such as the 300-meter dash, could have up to 500 participants. (By contrast, meets I participated in as a high school student typically had no more than 10 teams, and a single event would rarely have more than 50 participants.) At the Armory, athletes were lined up around the track and then brought forward to race, six at a time, as if they were bullets being loaded into the chamber of a gun. Because our students were new to the sport, and those with faster recorded times ran first, they were usually at the end of the line, standing around the track upwards of 45 minutes for their turn at a race that would be over in less than 45 seconds.
The system infuriated me, but I gamely told my students not to worry about their place in the results and race against the clock instead. Our kids ran hard, but it was not lost on them that they were out of their league. I believe the students would have had a more positive experience if they competed only against the athletes of other small schools.
A few students dropped out of the team as the season progressed. Others expressed deep apprehension every time we had a track meet. We had to do everything in our power to cajole some of them into racing. The stress of the meets finally came to a head one Friday evening when we took the team to compete in the relays-only meet that the PSAL required us to participate in.
Things went wrong that day from the beginning. One of our boys didn’t show up at school, meaning we wouldn’t have four bodies to field a boy’s relay team. We had five girls show up, but two of the slower ones protested that they did not want to run. The issue remained unresolved as we boarded the train for Manhattan that afternoon. We explained that if they didn’t compete, we would have to forfeit the meet, and thereby jeopardize our school’s chance of gaining another athletic team. But the girls did not want to subject themselves to the humiliation of finishing near last place and held firm.
We arrived at the Armory and tried one more time to persuade the girls, hoping that being at the venue would help change their minds. But after about 20 minutes, we concluded it was a lost cause. Having traveled an hour and half through rush hour to get there, we withdrew from both boys’ and girls’ competitions. Feeling terrible about the whole thing, I suggested we take the kids to McDonalds and debrief.
The kids ordered what they wanted and I split the bill with my co-coach. Once they had their food, we sat them down and had a team meeting. We told them that being on a team meant commitment and sacrifice, and some of the girls expressed frustration that we expected too much of them. We didn’t resolve anything, but I hope we showed the students that we cared about them regardless of whatever else happened.
Seven students made it through to the end of the season. After the last meet, I had them over to my apartment in Manhattan for a celebration. I cooked them burgers and hot dogs, and they devoured them but were mostly interested in watching movies on my HDTV. Watching the students interact in my home, it was easy to remember that they were just kids. I was proud of what we’d accomplished that season but knew there wouldn’t be a next season. I’d look for other ways to provide an after-school athletic program to students that wouldn’t leave us all feeling so demoralized.