Little fish survive swimming with sharks

I was in a field in Prospect Park during off-leash hours with my sweet Ginger prancing along beside me. Suddenly, there were big dogs charging straight at her, playful, but aggressive. My heart dropped as they surrounded her. She whimpered and cowered and ran in circles as they gave chase. I stood by, somewhat helplessly, calling her name, waiting, hoping.

One of the big dogs’ owners smiled from afar.

“They’re tough on the new kids…” she called out, in a manner slightly sympathetic but mainly unconcerned.

“Yes, I see…” I said, understanding, but not.

I started to feel slightly angry as I finally cornered Ginger and got the leash on her. I rubbed her head to calm her and told her she was okay as we walked away and beyond the field into the wooded paths we’d been headed to in the first place. How could the woman be so nonchalant when her dog and the others had been so brazen and rude, when they hadn’t respected that “no” meant “no?”

Why didn’t she control her pet?

But as we walked on and Ginger’s tail started wagging, as my heart rate slowed and calm prevailed. I had to remember the lesson of personal responsibility. I could hear my mother’s voice: “You can only control you.” I had come through, after all, knowing there were big galloping dogs who played in that field, secretly hoping Ginger could hold her own and not be scared, that I could be the brave dog owner who could stand by and encourage her to do just that.

It was the same exact feeling I’d had when Eli started baseball this past spring, the youngest by far on his team in the Bantam league. These were middle-schoolers, some of them with mustaches. Eli was just in fifth grade, still just 11, no armpit hair yet (though he routinely checked).

He’d come home on his bike the first day of practice and informed me straight-up: “They’re all way older than me.”

Luckily I’d been in the other room so he couldn’t see the fear pass across my face before I could switch it to a smile.

“Really?” I said. “Is that intimidating or is it inspiring?” I didn’t wait for an answer.

“Inspiring right? You’ll get better…” Good thing he couldn’t see me cross my fingers. Luckily I’m not a lawyer and don’t have to worry about leading the witness.

“Umm, umm,” he said. I could imagine his shrug. If it concerned him, he wasn’t saying, and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest he should be scared, right? It is never my intention to inject worry, it’s just often an unintended consequence of trying to be a helpful parent.

I couldn’t watch the first few games. I trumped up excuses to show up late, and then I was on the phone, checking Facebook, whatever it took not to have to watch when Eli got up to bat with the hard fast pitches coming straight at his head or when that same hard fast ball came straight at him in the field. My mother’s protective instinct kicked in and I just wanted to run out and pull him out of harms’ way. When he missed that pop fly and the opposing team’s parents cheered, I wanted to sneer at them angrily just like I had wanted to sneer at those bully dog owners in the field. I refrained.

“Good job, babe!” was all I said. If Eli noticed my own trepidation, it was overshadowed greatly by his father’s sincere encouragement and bravery on his behalf, and his own happy self-confidence.

Then, toward the end of the season, I noticed something amazing as I looked up bravely from my iPhone: Eli was mixing and mingling easily with his older teammates. He’d proven he could hold his own at bat and in the field — or at least smile and laugh it off when he couldn’t. During one game, Eli stood up to bat with a resolve in his eyes I recognized and I stood cheering, face to the fence, as he cracked it and brought two players home. Everyone cheered and Eli beamed. The team won that day, with no small help from its youngest player.

Next time I should find myself in that field, I have to remember the lesson of Eli: with a little confidence, without playing victim or showing fear, even the littlest guys can win the grudging respect of the big dogs.

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