“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Come on boys!” parents cheered from the river’s edge, strategically maneuvering through the brush to avoid wiping up against the thick vines of poison ivy climbing down the trees and reaching towards them as if to protectively grab hold of their overzealous bodies before they went plummeting into the murky water below.
In front of them, the boys glided, like black skimmers hoping to catch some fish, across the water. The synchronized beats of their oars were like a melodious orchestra, only, with no sound. Within seconds the boat had passed and the parents were clamoring to get back to open ground.
“It’s beautiful today,” said one mother, looking up to the sky.
“It really is” whispered another, her voice small and quiet.
“Did they find any dead bodies today?” said a third mother, grinning cheekily to her husband.
“I would hope not!” said the first mother, disturbed by the accusation.
“Every time I look at this river, I imagine dead bodies floating on by. I know they find ones here occasionally” remarked the third mother, very matter of factly.
“I don’t want to think about it” uttered the first mother.
Silence spread over the small group as they tried to shake the image of floating, bloated, decaying green corpses from their minds.
Turning her attention away from the group, the second mother spotted a familiar figure in the distance approaching them. Smiling, she waved.
“Hey, Coach! The boys looked great” she sang out, her quiet voice now booming with enthusiasm and pride. “I know they were upset that they didn’t practice more on the water before today, but I think they’ll place.”
“Hey! Yeah, they looked great. The fall season is pretty rough because you’re coming off of summer where they spend no time in the boat together. I told them they have 7 months to get it together for the spring” the coach declared while shaking hands with the group.
“I’m glad I have you all here” the coach continued. “I’m going to send an email out tonight, but this boat has been increasingly late to each practice, and tardiness is my biggest pet peeve.”
“What do you mean?” the third mother said, a stern tone eradicating her previous playful one.
“Collectively, they are late. It’s not just one repeat offender– it’s all of them. Two were late today, so this was their second strike. I told them that if they get three strikes, on the third strike they aren’t racing on the regatta that weekend, or whichever is next. The strikes reset every week. I will pull them out of the Head of the Charles if they are late one more time” the coach said, austere but not accusatory.
“Two strikes!” the first mother whispered, glancing nervously at her fellow moms.
“I asked the boys if they agreed to these terms. I want to make sure they understand and agree. I don’t want to make this something they claim is unfair. They had no qualms.” the coach explained as the mothers started to stew.
“I think this is a great idea. These morons need to take accountability for their actions and act responsibly” said the third mother’s husband. “My moron didn’t mention this to me once, so it already seems like he’s not taking it seriously. I think he needs this. Real repercussions. We were two minutes late today and he never once told me we needed to move faster or leave earlier.”
Smiling, the coach interjected, “The younger boys really admire and look up to them. Being late and then joking around at practice and hitting each other with pipes isn’t setting a good example.”
“Pipes!” said the second mother, exasperated.
“We need to talk to the boys. We need to get to the bottom of this. Should we start a carpool?” the third mother pressed.
“We can’t tell the boys who aren’t ours that they cannot drive” replied the first mother.
“You’re missing the point” the third mother’s husband declared, looking at the coach for support. “This isn’t on you. This is on them. They need to grow up.”
“Yes, I don’t want them to carpool. I want to see them mature and take something positive away from this” said the coach before changing the subject.
They stood around, making polite conversation for a few more moments but there was no hiding the mothers’ irritation. Simmering, the mothers huddled close together as the coach walked away. Outrage and disappointment in the situation and their children was emanating from the women, like a red smoke that could only signify something menacing and evil lurking nearby. In hushed tones, they tried to understand their teenagers’ logic. But that is just it- they are teenage boys. They think they are invincible, and they aren’t. Noticing his wife’s growing irritation, the third mother’s husband entered the huddle. “I think it is time for the boys to take accountability for their actions.” Begrudgingly, the mothers nodded along. Their maternal instincts had kicked in and though they wanted to kick their sons’ asses, they also wanted to protect them from the harsh punishment. They wanted the boys to take accountability, but more so, they wanted the boys to want to take accountability and to take it as seriously as they did. They yearned for a maturity that the boys might not yet possess and they were trying to strategize a way to force them to get there.
On the car ride home, the third mother and her husband pressed their son for more information. Knowing he wouldn’t react well to an interrogation, they tried to maintain their composure.
“We had an interesting conversation with your coach today. Why didn’t you tell us what was going on?” the third mother said calmly. Almost too calmy.
“I don’t know” the son muttered.
“I’m not accepting that” the father responded. “We were two minutes late this morning. At no point did you tell me to drive faster or to leave earlier. You had 0 sense of urgency. I don’t understand it”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t think we would be late” the son mumbled.
“Didn’t think it was a big deal!” the mother exclaimed horrified.
“Yeah, and it’s not like I was the only one. You dropped me off at the same exact time that J got there” the boy said with a bit of a whine.
“What is going on with you guys?” the father asked. “Why are you guys fooling around. Why are some of you repeatedly late to practice?”
“I don’t know. I don’t control the ones who drive. It’s not my fault they fool around at practice. I stay out of it but then they come at me and provoke me.” the son said quietly and earnestly.
The mother turned toward her son and saw the conflict on his face. She knew he was telling the truth. He was generally a quiet kid and a kind kid who hated conflict and confrontation. When he was younger, his much smaller friend would try to beat him up and he would just stand there, letting his friend go at him. One day, his father pulled him aside and asked him why he never fought back. The son said he knew that he could easily win if he wanted to, he was a lot bigger, but he knew his friend was trying to prove himself and it more to his friend to win. He didn’t care so he didn’t see the point in stepping on his friend’s ego when his friend seemed to need the boost.
“I know it’s hard” the father began, tentatively, “to stick up to your friends”
“But I think it’s worse to let them impede your success in something you love!” the mother energetically interjected.
“Yeah, it’s just hard when they are coming at you. It’s good fun to them, and though I think it’s annoying and tell them to stop, they don’t listen.” the boy answered modestly.
“Sometimes you have to stick up for yourself and take the hard position in life. Sometimes you have to stand up to your friends” the father replied.
“I know, it’s just hard. Especially since I’ve tried before and they just ignore it or come at me. They’re joking, they just don’t seem to get it.” the boy said, exhausted.
“Well, then the best you can do is keep trying. You might have to be firmer in your stance. You just have to keep trying” said the mother.
With that, the father increased the music in the car and the son drifted off to sleep. The mother grabbed his hand and gave it a tight squeeze and proudly glanced at her son before closing her eyes and letting the music carry her away.
Perhaps it’s a cliche to begin writing with a quote, especially one from Harry Potter, but I find that the brilliance of JK Rowling comes not just from the extraordinary world she has created, but also from her ability to put simply and eloquently the thoughts and feelings I think we all have felt at one point or another. To be as swift and adept with a pen to the same degree as her is something I think so many of us long for.