The Graduate*

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not this time. Not after all the other setbacks and unlucky breaks. His senior year was supposed to be different. This was supposed to be the time the cowboy rides out into the sunset, onto the next adventure, the next rodeo. He wasn’t supposed to deal with disappointment again, but when disappointment finds a home, it likes to stay there.

A lot goes through your thoughts when you are staring at the roof of a helicopter, your neck in a brace, your body secured to a spine board. The propellers of a medical helicopter rotate at approximately 500 RPMs, the thoughts of the person being flown are faster than that. So many thoughts, so much praying. What goes through the mind of a 16 year old when their life is in the hands of complete strangers at 5000 feet? Just ask Wyatt Baker, he’s been through it twice.

Just ask Baker what the most disappointing thing about his high school career is and you will notice a pause. Not that he is emotional about it, though he has every right to be, it’s just he can’t say just one. When you have the kind of high school memories he has, you get a van Gogh painting of beauty and heartache, all swirled together to make a wonderful masterpiece that was supposed to be different, and was.

The first time Baker was flown out of a football stadium was his sophomore year. His breakout year. His defining one. Sure he was an excellent player to begin with, but this was the year he was going to move from good to great. The year like his teammates, most of whom he had grown up with since birth, would leave their mark. Their move from boys to men, from tales to legends.

Some legends need a while to be made, for Baker, it would have to wait a year.

Concussion is not a word you want to hear as a player, nor is one you want to hear as a parent. Baker had sustained a major one. Obviously, you don’t get a $15,000 helicopter ride for scrapping your knee. But concussions are taken seriously now in the world of sports, especially youth sports, and when you get flown out of a game on the wings of a metal angel, your season is done. 

The seed of disappointment planted. 

Move forward one year, and Baker has renewed hope and regained focus. One’s junior year is the beginning of a right of passage, the earmarked page in life’s book, that they turn back to so many times to relive memories and re-tale stories. It is a place where memories should live in a box of gold, to be treasured always and looked upon with smiles. For Wyatt Baker it was supposed to be his new breakout year.

But the funny things about seeds, they tend to grow.

You can’t make up certain stories, you can’t tell his story about what happened that junior season without getting the look of confusion from the listener. “He got another concussion? He got another helicopter ride? They would ask, as if you accidentally repeated to them the contents of his sophomore year. That’s unbelievable, they would say.

Yes it is unbelievable. Like lightning striking twice, on the same person, Baker would be struck again with injury and heartache, flown from a field to a hospital. The same condition, the same results. His junior season was over, before it really began. 

Disappointment strikes again, Baker is still standing.

The hard thing to convey to a young person that hasn’t had a chance to see the world is people don’t judge your heart by your inability not to play. Especially after two concussions and two helicopter rides, but in the heart of someone who is a fighter, not being able to play is one thing, thinking you are letting your team down is heart wrenching.

No one judges themselves harder than the one in the mirror, and Baker was the judge and jury. Disappointment is soreness, guilt is a prison sentence.

Two seasons started, both over right before his eyes. He knew he was lucky, or blessed, whatever spin you want to put on it. He has seen the stories of the kids that spend the rest of their lives in wheelchairs, he has seen the stories of death. He wasn’t going to argue with God. He wasn’t going to test fate.

Senior year. Here we go. All the mishaps and misgivings behind him. He had mentally prepared for this. He knew the sadness would be there, but not playing football is one thing, actually seeing the lights of the field on the first game of your senior season, and not stepping foot on it with your friends, can break a man’s heart.

He would hold it together.

He still had his status as salutatorian intact, an honor he held just as high as any athletic one, and his senior year of baseball ahead. He was disappointed from all his high school career has dealt him so far, but not defeated.

When the roots of disappointment spread, they spread in a thousand directions.

Mamma bears protect their cubs, and when cubs have already been cheated out of so much, then may God protect the soul of whoever attempts to lay the finishing punch. You don’t watch your cub fly away alone in the darkness of night in a medical helicopter and feel the greatest sense of helplessness a parent can. So when a pain comes knocking on the door of a kid who’s door had already been kicked in twice, you grab a bat, and fight back.

A calculation error, or something like that. In the vast subjectivity of the universe, the only true constant is math. And for some reason, the bad luck of Baker moved off the playing field and into the classroom. The salutatorian status once bestowed to him was now revoked, like the three football seasons behind him. Taken away. Not from his inability to do math, but because of someone else’s inability to calculate it. 

Once you stab someone with a sword, you start to twist it ever so slowly so they can feel the pain. There really is no reason to kill a man more than once, and you certainly don’t need to keep twisting the sword when you see a soul dying.

You can’t fight concussions, but you can fight a calculator. You can’t ask a brain to stop swelling but you can ask for a recount. You can’t change the past, but by God, you sure as hell can stop the spread of pain in the future.. 

Baker would get his status back, but not without a few emotional scars. Loss takes its toll on a person, and when that person is already stumbling from loss, it doesn’t take much to become a final blow.

Disappointment starts to bloom, opening its leaves to capture the sun, hoping to grow taller, hoping to get bigger.

If anything good can come out of sitting out your senior football season, it would be to work on getting ready for your senior baseball season. Baseball is magical, it makes the soul dance with excitement. A game played in the spring with the world coming out of hibernation. The birds returning, the flowers blooming. All is good in the springtime, a renewed sense of being. This was what Baker was hoping for, leaving the past behind and just starting over, let his senior year get renewed in the fresh crisp air of spring. Let memories grow like the green blades of grass on which baseball is played. Let the disappointment of a year that was supposed to be momentus fade like the coldness of winter behind him. Let’s finish the race on a good note. Let’s ease his pain.

Everything grows in the spring. Disappointment is no different.

There were rumors, but no one expected this. This was unprecedented, this couldn’t be the way it all ended. How could something unseen to the naked eye end it all. A virus? Surely this was just a joke right? A concussion is tangible. You have sporting careers end because of a concussion. You can at least live with yourself that you went out trying to compete and an injury happened. There is honor in pain, there is glory in effort. What the fuck was this? 

Disappointment has grown tall.

As if lifting the needle of a record playing mid song, it was over. All of it. Not just a season, not just a senior year already tainted with gloom, but an entire high school career. Gone.  

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not for Wyatt Baker. Not for anyone. But it did. A pandemic that has shut the entire world down, has shut the door on an entire class of graduates. They belong to the group Generation Z, but this small subgroup will forever have an asterisk by their graduation year. Not in the entire history of education has an event shut down an entire graduating class.

This group is different. Male and female, black and white, rich or poor, that whole graduating class of 2020* will be in the same boat, the USS Asterisk*. They will forever be called the Graduates*, and no matter where they go in life, they will have a story to tell, a story of pain, and loss and yes, disappointment. Even the man with amnesia regains the memory of his past. These kids didn’t even have the chance to finish making theirs. 

Baker is part of that group, the Graduates*. He will move on, not because he wants to, but because he has too. Disappointment has been there for his senior year, hell, for his entire high school being, but don’t ask him if he is sad. He will look at you with those deep dark eyes, cocked grin, and tell you about plans. The plans he has to move on in life, to take what he has learned, and well, learn from it. He will tell you about family and God and community, and how all of them got him through this and how they will help him move on, again. Sure he may seem a bit sad about it all, but he has dealt with disappointment, he knows it has no teeth, no true power other than the power we give it. He will laugh at the helicopter rides, he will still have salutatorian listed by his name. He can still hit a curve, whether it be from a pitcher or by life. But he won’t be broken, he won’t be defeated. If iron truly sharpens iron, then Baker is the sharpest ax in the shed. 

Disappointment is now a tree…and Wyatt Baker just chopped it the fuck down.