End of school, junior year. My son Jake has emptied out his locker and dumped a huge plastic bag full of detritus on the sofa — the complete set of Twilight novels, his yearbook, damp t-shirts, socks, mouthguards, his midterm report card (better I didn’t see that), his prom photos, sneakers, cleats, a raft of hall passes from mornings he was late. One item is conspicuously absent.
“Where’s your letter jacket?” I ask as he sits at his computer, immersed in World of Warcraft.
“Your letter jacket. Where is it?”
There’s a moment’s pause while he multi-tasks and mulls whether the question merits a response. “It’s in the closet,” he says finally. Another pause. Then, with increased intensity as he realizes what I’ve asked: “Isn’t it?”
There are fairy tales about those who become too enamored of certain possessions: Snow White’s stepmother and her magic mirror, King Midas and his gold. In our household, it’s Jake’s letter jacket, a wool-and-pleather totem with his varsity football letter stitched to the left front and his number and position on the sleeves. Part of its importance can be traced to the fact that the jacket cost a freaking fortune, much more than anything else in Jake’s wardrobe, which mostly consists of Nike basketball shorts and Under Armour shirts bought in outlets. In fact, when Jake brought home a flier about the jackets, he suggested we not get him one.
“It’s so much money,” he admitted. That was last September, the fall of his junior year. He’d spent his sophomore football season playing JV, and how much of a role he’d now have on the varsity team was still an open question.
“It could be your birthday present,” I suggested, and saw him weigh this in his mind: What will I have to give up? (Answer: cash, and the computer games he could buy with it.)
What he couldn’t add into his calculations was what he couldn’t know: how important that letter jacket was to me.
“I think you should get one,” I told him. “I’ll pay for it.” And I did — $215, plus an extra $20 for the size 5XL. I wanted it to fit him for as long as he lives.
The day he brought it home, I hung it in the kitchen closet — and visited it, secretly, whenever I went into the room. When I visited, I’d pet it. I thought it was the most beautiful, most splendid piece of clothing I’d ever seen.
I GREW UP in strange times, in the ’60s and ’70s. On the face of it, I was a long-haired, longer-skirted flower child, a poetry-writing hippie concerned with religion and world peace. Underneath that, in my heart, I was a rah-rah jock, a fan of all athletic pursuits, a person who’d pause to watch a game of any sort: pickup basketball, American Legion baseball, even little kids’ soccer. I was also a reader, a devourer of young-adult literature, a devotee of teen novels in which the ultimate goal in life wasn’t, as it would be in more recent, more politically correct literature, to find oneself. In the books I loved, girls wanted to find him, the all-important, all-encompassing boy they’d stay with for the rest of their days. They longed for that boy to be all-American, a hero — the high-school football hero. And in all those books, the crossover moment, the instant in which the heroine realized that her lifelong dream had come to fruition, came when that tall, handsome hero laid his letter jacket tenderly across her (slim, cardigan-draped) shoulders, to keep her warm. It was a teenage rite of passage I ardently wished for even as I dated counterculture types who sneered at all the letter jacket stood for while they protested the Vietnam War.
The letter jacket would not be denied.
Even in these times, these post-women’s-liberation days when we have Michelle in the White House and Hillary in charge of foreign policy and Sonia joining Ruth on the Supreme Court, there’s something about this retro emblem of the Happy Days era, this holdover (hangover?) from when the jock was king. I saw it last Christmas, when my daughter Marcy was home from college and her high-school girlfriends were stopping by the house. “Can I?” they’d ask Jake longingly when they spotted The Jacket on the sofa, where he tends to drop it. (Such a long, long way to the closet.) Granted shrugged permission, they’d lift it up gingerly, ease into it, and … luxuriate. Wrap it tight around themselves. Trace the embroidery with their fingertips, jam their fists into the pockets, possessing it, inhabiting it, if only momentarily. Taking on its might, its power, the status it conferred. Imagining themselves having it laid tenderly across their shoulders on a cold, cold night …
I was shocked by the way girls still bought into the letter-jacket legend. Shocked, and a little … thrilled. Because of course I never imagined any son of mine becoming a member of the few, the proud, the football-letter-jacket wearers. I’ve lived my life — actually, gotten most of my motivation from — not being mainstream, not fitting in, feeling separate and apart and misunderstood and, yeah, a little persecuted by the cool kids.
Now my son had become one of the cool kids.
I’m still figuring out how I feel about that.
YOU PAY WHEN you’re different, in a million ways, large and small. I remember checking in at the registration table at my 20-year high-school reunion and having the ex-cheerleader manning the attendance list — a skinny, hard-boiled blonde who’d always scared the hell out of me — glance up and say, “I like your dress.”
“Thanks,” I whispered, inaudible in my astonished surprise — and then was so grateful I hadn’t said it more loudly when I realized she was talking to another ex-cheerleader standing right over my shoulder.
My son took a cheerleader to prom.
You want your children to have it easier than you did, to be happier than you were — don’t you? I’m not sure. Marcy, my daughter — different like I was, though in different ways — gets really pissed off at what she sees as the free pass that life is giving her brother. She worked so hard to get good grades all through high school, sweated her SATs, and is still studying like crazy now that she’s in college, to keep her GPA up in the stratosphere. Jake does the absolute bare minimum he can in school — and it doesn’t matter; good colleges are begging him to e-mail them, return their calls, come visit them, because of football. I hate what this is teaching her — and him — about life.
But it would be much simpler to be scornful if I didn’t love the game. That the thrill of watching him play could continue, that somehow I — lowly, geeky I — might get an extension on the string of autumn afternoons spent sitting in bleachers, that the grand panoply of mascots and marching bands and referees’ whistles and leaping receivers’ outstretched hands could last beyond this senior year, makes me beside myself with happiness.
And then I feel like a horrible mother, because really, what about concussions? What about arthritis 30 years from now? What about torn meniscuses and ACLs and rotor cuffs and groin muscles?
What about … Division I?
I SPENT THE summer driving Jake to football camps. We’d get up at dawn and head out for Lafayette or Delaware or Temple or Princeton, chasing the dream. I’m not sure, really, whose dream it is. He says he wants to play in college. But he also says he wants to go to the best school that will have him, academically. That could well be Division III, which doesn’t give athletic scholarships, which means I’ll never recoup the money for the camps and the cleats and the lineman gloves.
The jacket, though — he’ll have that forever, a symbol of where he stood in the high-school pecking order: Top of the world, Ma! Big man on campus. Jock king. I fret that everything after will pale in comparison, the way it can for people who peak early.
I fret more that he’ll hurt himself in this, his senior year.
The camps were full of large children, man-kids, all jockeying for recognition. Even in their midst, Jake stood out on account of his size. “Big Guy,” the coaches called him: “Way to go, Big Guy!” “Keep hustling, Big Guy!” I watched him at those camps, taking his stance across from one player after another, helmetless, without pads, just one on one, mano-a-mano, driving, pushing, shoving, fighting for dominance in a display as feral as two headlocking bulls or mastodons or mountain goats. Men have been doing this — with one excuse or another; not always football — for the past 30,000 years. They’ll go on doing it forever, I guess.
I whine a lot, it struck me — while I watched Jake attack the enemy, holding my breath — about how hard it is to be female in America today. Still. About the battles I fight, and my daughter has to fight, against gender discrimination and glass ceilings and wolf whistles. About the who-vacuums wars.
But ours are mental battles, the ones she and I wage. Until I watched my son line up against the enemy in those camps, I never thought much about how hard it is to be a man — to go out onto a football field and ram into a big, strong, scary foe without flinching, with your eyes never leaving his eyes. Why would I? All my life, I’ve been framing male/female relations in a Ms. magazine way. Did the Sabine women lose sleep pondering the feelings of their oppressors? Did Anita Hill worry whether Clarence Thomas harbored secret puddles of vulnerability?
And Jake doesn’t make it easy to empathize with him. Everything in his life right now is exaggeratedly masculine: the thumping rock music, the frenzied weight lifting, the war games on his computer and Xbox, the way he snaps out at me for nothing, as caricatured as Ralph Kramden dressing Alice down. There isn’t any of the nuance I’m hoping for, no sign he may become an enlightened male, because he doesn’t know how to factor gentleness or compassion into the Jake = man equation. He’s new at this, and as is the way with recent converts of all sorts, it’s everything or nothing for him. His greatest fear is to be thought soft or girly or God forbid gay in any way, through any behavioral crack.
And I represent only softness. In my eyes, he still sees reflected the colicky infant I rocked for hours every night, the couldn’t-wait-to-walk baby, the toddler who was an adorable pumpkin for Halloween. He sees them because they’re still there. Is it any wonder I don’t want to discard them, replace those boys who needed me with this one who doesn’t? Yet this is why he can’t stand that I hover, that I remind him again to do his dishes, that when his alarm clock rings and rings in the morning, I call to him cheerfully: “Jake! Time to get up!” In his mind, he’s already Tony Romo, living on his own, dodging paparazzi with Hollywood starlets. Tony Romo doesn’t have a mom.
THE LETTER JACKET is tangible, shorthand proof of Jake’s manliness. That’s why it’s so important to him … and to me. As Marcy and her friends prove in my living room, shrouding themselves in Jake’s jacket, something compelling, something primitive and tribal, celebrates the butting of head against head. It’s in me, too; it’s why I gladly paid for the jacket — and have contemplated buying a backup this year. What can I say? He’s careless with his things.
Yet it’s double-edged. Like Marcy, I’m so pissed at him for this charmed life he’s living, for the free passes he gets because of that damned jacket, for the way it subverts what I’ve tried to teach him about What Really Matters. Isn’t that precisely what’s so seductive about it? It symbolizes the droit du seigneur we all secretly wish was ours, the rank we feel we deserve but that others, for reasons that thwart and confound us, have been blessed with instead.
I watch my son face off against his enemies in wonder. I wouldn’t have been good at that, at physically taking on foes, back when I was 16. I think I would be now, though, with half a century of rage built up inside me about how the more things change, the more they never do.