Peaking Too Soon

My sons often joke about how they peaked too soon when it came to their athletic abilities. I guess I am one of the boys, as I also peaked too early in sports and popularity. I reached my apex in junior high school. I started the climb in seventh grade when I was one of only two from my class to make the school basketball team (we only had one for the entire school). A year later, I played little league football for the first and only time but started both ways. A year after that, I gave up football for volleyball. My junior high school had no football team, so, in ninth grade, I figured I would play volleyball instead to help maximize my popularity. I mean, no one but parents attended little league football games, and even my parents didn’t come that often. But the school forced all students to watch the volleyball and basketball games, as we played them during the last hour and a half of school. What better way to improve my popularity than have the entire student body come and watch me play? Or so I thought back then. 

But ninth grade didn’t always go as I had planned. The school volleyball coach cut me from the team. But, through the influence of my basketball coach, the volleyball coach asked me to come back. I started as the twelfth man on the squad, but by midseason, I was starting. Then came basketball, where I started every game and was one of the leading scorers. But it wasn’t just in sports where I did well. The drama teacher picked me for the lead in our graduation play, and I took a popular cheerleader to the graduation dance. Oh, and that was the year I had my first kiss. But it was all downhill from there. I never made a high school varsity team; no one picked me for the lead in any high school play, and I didn’t date much either. I rationalized that sports and popularity were overrated.

But junior high school was also the time that I fell in love with movies. In the eighth grade, my brother asked me to go with him to see one. It was a film he had already seen, but he wanted to see it again. On the way to the theater, he told me, “You might think this is just a dirty movie, but I loved it. He took me to see The Graduate.[i] And I loved it, too. At first, I thought it was cool that an older, married woman seduced Ben. But then I saw the bigger picture. Mrs. Robinson was in a loveless marriage, and she was having loveless sex with Ben. Ben’s parents, the Robinsons, and all of their friends pursued happiness through material possessions, but none of those possessions brought them any real joy. Only Ben’s connection with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, had meaning for Ben. And he worried about his future. The Graduate got me thinking about my future. Would I marry for love, and would that love last? (Fortunately, yes!) Would I find a career that challenged me? Or would it merely be a means to material possessions, which might not bring me much happiness? Here is the final scene from The Graduate:

I love that scene. The expressions on Ben’s and Elaine’s faces as they ride that bus says it all. I have often wondered if Ben and Elaine would make it together. By the looks on their faces, I’m not sure knew either. But they were willing to take a risk (even a crazy one) to live more fulfilling lives than their parents. It taught me I wanted a fulfilling life as well. And to start figuring out how I could get it.

About this time, one of my best friends and I decided to see Cool Hand Luke.[ii] Here is the scene where Luke gets his nickname:

Cool Hand Luke is, well, cool. But I love his philosophy: even nothing can be a cool hand. And that is how he lived his life. He always tried to find some fun in every situation, even when—especially when—he was in prison. Life can dump hardship on us. Sometimes it is our fault, but sometimes not. Regardless of blame, no one is immune to tragedy. But we have a choice on how we react and deal with it. As someone once said, “No one ever hurt their eyes by looking at the bright side of things.”

In the Heat of the Night[iii] won the Oscar for the best picture of 1967. It wasn’t my favorite movie that year (see above), but it was the first movie that put race relations in front of me. When I saw it, I don’t think I even knew a person of color, let alone associated with one. But In The Heat of the Night exposed me to a problem that 50 years later, we still haven’t fixed. Watching movies that focus on marginalized groups became one of my favorite things to do, and hopefully, taught me to be at least a little less racist than I might have otherwise become. Perhaps the most famous line from the film is, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” But I like this scene better, as it taught me what it might be like to be black in the South in the sixties:

In ninth grade, at the peak of my popularity, I watched two movies that had a significant impact on me. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?[iv] I witnessed what it might be like not to know where your next meal might come from. I learned to be grateful for what I had and to be aware of others less fortunate. I have tried to live with the message of that movie always in the back of my mind. Fortunately, I married a woman who was far better at helping others than I would have been on m own. As she reminds me, “What good are material possessions if you don’t share them with family and friends?” But with Janene, being family or friends is not a prerequisite to her generosity. Sadly, people sometimes treat animals better than they treat their fellow humans, as illustrated by this scene:

I believe part of our responsibility in this life is to help relieve suffering. With COVID-19 still a pandemic and disproportionately affecting the poor and persons of color, there are plenty of opportunities for us to help those suffering all around us.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid[v] became my favorite movie of 1969. I loved Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and that love turned into a full-blown bromance after watching Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. I have to admit, though, I was a little jealous of The Kid (played by Robert Redford) because he got the girl (played by Katharine Ross, who also played Elaine in the Graduate). Both Butch and the Kid were cool and lived life to the fullest, and had fun as they went (well, until Bolivia at least).

I loved the movie so much, for drama class, my buddy and I decided to do a reader’s theater scene based on several scenes from the film. Here is one of the scenes we used:

At the end of our performance, we jumped off the stage together, like in the movie.  Afterward (we got an A, by the way), I asked my drama teacher, “Didn’t you love the movie?  She replied that she had never seen it. I was shocked. One of the best movies of all time and my drama teacher had never seen it!  She explained in words that shocked me even more. “I don’t support immoral movies.” My drama teacher was no prude. She had liberal views on just about everything, from social injustice to religion.

Immoral?  Huh?  She then explained. “I consider it immoral because it makes the viewer root for robbers and murderers.  Do we want people like them to be our heroes?”

I had never thought of it in that light before.  I did root for Butch and the Kid as they spent their days robbing banks and trains. Their Wild Bunch Gang murdered more than a half dozen law enforcement officers. And I admit I felt sad when the law finally caught up with them in Bolivia and presumably killed them.

I still watch movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I still enjoy them. But I have never forgotten those words from my drama teacher. And now, after almost every film I watch, I think about right and wrong and what I can learn from it, either as a good example or a bad one.

I don’t wish to go back to my glory days of junior high. But I am glad I lived them, primarily because those years taught me that everything important in life, I can learn from watching movies.


[i] The Graduate:

  • Production Company: Lawrence Truman Productions
  • Director: Mike Nichols
  • Screenwriters: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (based on the novel by Charles Webb)
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross
  • Release date: December 21, 1967

[ii] Cool Hand Luke:

  • Production Company: Jalem Productions
  • Director: Stuart Rosenberg
  • Screenwriters: Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson
  • Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, and Strother Martin
  • Release date: November 1, 1967

[iii] In the Heat of the Night:

  • Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation
  • Director: Norman Jewison
  • Screenwriter: Sterling Stilliphant (based on the novel by John Ball)
  • Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, and Warren Oates
  • Release date: August 2, 1967

[iv] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?:

  • Production Companies: Palomar Pictures and American Broadcasting Company (ABC)
  • Director: Sidney Pollack
  • Screenwriter: James Poe (based on the novel by Horace McCoy)
  • Starring: Jane Fonda, Micheal Sarrazin, and Susannah York
  • Release date: December 10, 1969

[v] Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

  • Production Companies: Campanile Productions, George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Productions, and Newman-Foreman Company
  • Director: George Roy Hill
  • Screenwriter: William Goldman
  • Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
  • Release date: September 24, 1969

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