Cursing Like a Sixth Grade Sailor

In the spring of 1988, I was finishing the 6th grade and the shortest track and field career in the history of the sport was just underway. I've mentioned plenty of times before that I attended a small rural school from grades K through 8 before being fed into the larger community high school. With an average grade size (not class size, but grade size) of around 20-30 students, athletic opportunities for boys were limited to basketball and track.

Coming off another basketball season on the bench (which I've recently discussed, as well), the weather was warming and it was time for track. I'd never enjoyed running. In fact, the furthest I'd ever regularly run up to this point in my life was from home plate to first base -- aside from typical kid play, of course.

Our school didn't take too seriously its track traditions. Events were occasionally assigned using methods like "you're pretty fast, so you're a sprinter." For the most part, we were able to sign up for our own events. Acceptable practice from a team whose season consisted of only two track meets.

The day was coming when we'd spend the early parts of after practice selecting our events. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for sure since I really didn't like to run, I couldn't jump high or far, and the heaviest thing I'd ever thrown in a competition was a baseball. I was basically out for track for social purposes. But before I get to my event, let's talk about what happened in PE class a few days earlier.

Our class was taking part in a fitness unit and we'd come to the day where we'd all hang from the chin up bar and look like fools. Sure, there'd be a few early developers who'd knock out a half-dozen pull-ups with little effort -- and the girls could do the flexed arm hang -- but what about those of us whose chin-up skills were a little less...refined?

Ugh. I hated this day.

My name was called and I climbed to the chin-up bar where I gave a half-hearted effort. Resigning myself to the fact that I was better suited for the shuttle run than the chin-up bar, it happened. My hand slipped from the metal bar and I fell to the floor below. Although I landed on my feet, I did so awkwardly enough that the words just came naturally from my lips:


My classmates went silent as Coach Skelton raised his eyebrows and pointed to the bleachers across the gym where I was to sit alone with my zero chin-ups and my sailor's tongue.

I can't remember if I told my parents about this when I got home. I don't think I did...but I didn't have to. It was only a few days later that the letter arrived.

April 14, 1988 
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Lybarger: 
I am writing this letter to inform you that Tim will stay in after school detention Monday, April 18, 1988. 
This action is because Tim blurted out the word "SHIT" in P.E. class Wednesday, April 13, in front of many students and Mr. Skelton. He did it in exasperation at not being able to complete an exercise he was doing. Although it appears to be unintentional, he cannot be allowed to talk in that manner. I trust this form of discipline will help him to control his tongue in future situations. 
I thank you for your help and support in this matter. Any further incidents will be dealt with as they occur. 
He will be in detention from 3:10 to 4:00 p.m. Please arrange for his way home at 4:00 pm. 
Earl R. Sullens

Detention to be served on Monday?! That was the day we'd be signing up for our track events! I'd be stuck with whatever crappy event was left after all of my friends got their pick!

Nevertheless, I served my detention. Sitting at a desk alone in the 7th grade classroom, my friends were just a few rooms away picking sprints, high jumps, and throws. Me? I found out at 4:00 that I'd be running the 800.

What?! That's a half-mile!

With no other choice besides quitting the team, I accepted my fate and boarded the bus a few weeks later, headed to my first track meet. Keep in mind that we had no history of being a school with any sort of competitive track program. Our daily practices consisted of afternoon laps jogged around the perimeter of the school's blacktop. Needless to say, my training was sub-par for a race I had no business running in the first place.

But I was at the track meet and the time came for me to run my race. And I planned to win.

I was a 6th grader running against 8th graders. But I was going to win.

I hadn't trained. I hadn't even stretched or warmed up in any way. But I was about to dominate the 800 meter race.

The gun sounded and off I went on a dead sprint. I hung tight with the pack through the first turn -- what would that be? 100 meters? -- before the distance quickly increased between myself and the other runners. My pace slowed as the others left me behind. Even the kid from the private school that anyone could beat was far out of my range. Despite my inner desire to quit this two-lap race after one lap, I pressed on as I heard my friends howling with laughter as I passed them in the stands.

Less than a quarter of the way into my second lap, I heard cheers from the crowd as others were finishing the race.

Yep. You read that correctly. In a two-lap race, I was just starting my second lap as most of my opponents were finishing their second. In a two-lap race, had there been a third lap, I easily would have been passed.



Half-way through the second lap, my legs were so tight and my mouth so dry that I considered walking across the grass and quitting. But I continued.

I'd love to know what my final time was in that race but I'm guessing it wasn't even recorded as the runners in the next race were already lined up -- in my way -- as I got to the finish line.

Equally embarrassed and exhausted, I headed to the bleachers as fast as my wobbly legs would take me. My friends laughed. I tried to throw Gatorade on one of them to quiet their mocking … but they continued. So I drank my Gatorade instead.

I continued to go to track practice after school that year, but found myself “sick” on the day of the second meet. I chose not to go out for track as a 7th and 8th grader thus ending my short and humiliating track career.

I'm guessing Usain Bolt never said a curse word in PE class.

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