Semper Fi (In Other Words: Have Some Heart, Rebecca)
By Rebecca Rasmussen
The first time I walked off the course and back to the starting line I felt justified in my choice to quit. I was in terrible pain. I had lost my breath. I had cramps in my legs, in my heart. Girls were passing me on all sides. Their ponytails were swishing right out of my view. So here’s what I did: I simply walked back to the place I’d started.
The year was 1992, and I was a freshman in high school, thirteen years old. I had a shaky relationship with just about everyone in my family, though I remember my mother coming to this cross-country meet, my first. I remember she wore my dad’s boxy old yellow windbreaker, which I took from his closet the last time I visited him and my stepmom in Spring Green, Wisconsin, though I don’t remember why.
“You’ll do better next time,” my mother said, when she saw me near the starting line.
I’ll tell you this: a part of me wanted to get in the car with her. To stop and pick up pizza at Malnati’s on the way home. To rent a funny movie and eat sour cherry candies. To forget about cross-country and move on to field hockey or dance. Or chess even.
But I’ll also tell you this: an even bigger part of me wanted something else entirely, something I couldn’t put a name to, but knew as a secret deep in my heart. And that’s what I got—exactly what I wanted—that early Saturday morning in September, while girls sprinted into the chute and parents cheered and brightly colored ribbons flapped in the breeze.
“Come here right now,” my coach, Mr. Baker, said to me, in a voice I thought only parents were allowed to use.
“I think I’ll take her home,” my mother interrupted.
“Not yet,” Mr. Baker said and pulled me away from my mother, which I remember thinking was impressive. People didn’t say no to her.
When we were alone behind a grand old Illinois oak tree, Mr. Baker asked me why I’d stopped running, why I came walking back, why I gave up.
I told him what I told you. Cramps. Pain. Breath.
“I don’t care if you’re the last girl out there and you crawl in on your hands and knees,” Mr. Baker said. “You don’t ever give up like that, do you understand me?”
“I couldn’t go on,” I said, looking at the electric leaves up in the tree.
Mr. Baker put his hands squarely on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes, which nobody had ever done before. (I come from a long line of side-glancers.)
“You can always go on,” he said very seriously.
I don’t know why, but I wanted to wrap my arms around this man. His strength and strange, unwarranted belief in me was what I’d been looking for in members of my family and what members of my family couldn’t give me just then, and here Mr. Baker was, a man I barely knew, a man with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.
“I wasn’t going to win,” I said, knowing then that that was the real reason I’d quit.
Mr. Baker smiled. “This is the first brave thing I’ve seen you do.”
“What?” I said, beginning to smile, too, though I didn’t know why.
“Tell the truth,” he said, and hugged me so securely I thought I’d turn blue. “You’re a good kid, you know. I think you’re going to be all right.”
(Words that were so wonderful I started to cry.)
I don’t know if you can teach someone to have heart or not, but that’s what Mr. Baker did for me that day and that strength of heart is what I’ve carried with me all these years. If a door closes, I find another one to try to open. If ponytails are passing me, I go after them instead of giving myself over to negativity and turning away.
Crossing the finish line, having guts and grit, is what’s important to me. Knowing that I didn’t quit—that I don’t quit—makes me proud, confident, happy.
These days, I’m a writer more than I’m a runner, though I still try to hit the pavement four or five times a week. Writing, I’ve learned, takes the same tenacity, the same hard work and hard-won belief in one’s self. I’ve seen so many talented writers give up, and I want to grab them by the shoulders and look directly in their eyes and tell them what Mr. Baker told me. Keep writing even if you have to crawl on your hands and knees.
My first novel is coming out with a large New York press in April. From the outside, my story looks so easy and breezy and, well, full of beauty. The truth is that I fought for my book every single step of the way. I fought for it when people kept saying no for months and months and months. I fought when they said, “we need to think about sales figures.”
I am fighting for it even now.
And you know what: it probably won’t sell a million copies, I probably won’t be able to quit my job and shop at Whole Foods for herbs and nuts and fish, and I probably won’t wake up and see my name in The New York Times any time soon.
But on April 12th, I’ll be smiling. I promise you that.
Writing a book, finding an agent and an editor, finding my way through all of the no, you can’ts! has been the longest race of my life and I’ll have finally made it to the chute—without fanfare, maybe—but on my own two feet.
(A thought so wonderful I know I will cry.)
I haven’t seen Mr. Baker since I was a senior in high school. Is he alive? Is he still coaching running? I don’t know.
That warm September day at the cross-country meet was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life. He taught me about being brave, about being bold, about fighting for what you want and deserve in life. He taught me about nourishing myself in every sense of the word.
He told me about his time in Vietnam, about never giving up even when people around him were dying in muddy rice paddies.
I’ll never forget what he said.
Right before the next cross-country race, Mr. Baker and I exchanged presents, if you can call them that. I gave him my father’s old yellow windbreaker, which he wore to most every meet for the next four years, and he gave me a Semper Fi flag he’d had since the war and which I still keep in my treasure box in the closet.
Whenever I find myself alone on the course now, in the middle of a race that’s even less defined than when I was a teenager, I think of Mr. Baker—those blue eyes and that flag—and I keep going.
I keep hearing him say, have some heart, Rebecca.
Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter. Visit her at http://www.thebirdsisters.com