Like most everyone, I once waged a battle against a force as relentless, punishing and timeless as waves crashing on the beach: kids being dicks to each other.
Here’s a quick recap of my life up until age 16, with a focus on what would become the major annoyance of my youth: my high voice making me feel inadequate on the basketball court.
3rd through 6th grade — The good ol’ days. I was tiny and had a high voice, but every other young boy was in the same boat. We could all answer an incoming phone call and be mistaken for our sister or mother. This happened to me all the time. I hated it. If only cell phones had taken over a bit earlier.
7th grade — Even amongst mostly pre-pubescent people, I was smaller and more squeaky-voiced than most. I compensated by being scrappy on the court, which rubbed some people the wrong way. That included opposing coaches.
Once, when taking a crucial shot, a 40-year-old coach leaned over and whispered in my ear that I was a “little bitch.” I was 12. And you wonder why the AAU circuit gets a bad rap.
8th through 9th grade — The kids I played against were pretty much done with puberty. I still looked like someone you’d try to help if you saw me alone in the mall.
This was the period where it felt like every time I called a play on the court, someone on the other team would echo back my words, mockingly, in a comically high voice. It was like playing against a team full of 80’s movie bullies.
Throughout my playing career, I used to get so focused on the game that I often couldn’t hear the crowd noise. I think that’s why I found it amazing that there were people who had the wherewithal to openly mock me during a game. Kids are ruthless.
The annoying thing is, it totally worked. I hated when people made fun of my voice. I silently cursed my endocrine system. I jealously stared at other guy’s protruding Adam’s Apples during class. I ate like an NFL Lineman, hoping to jumpstart my growth and development. I did everything besides wander around by a radiation plant in hopes of scrambling some sense into my DNA.
Nothing worked. I was stuck.
I was too naive to realize there was no problem to be dealt with.
I never came across the studies showing that delayed puberty can lead to an increase in final height. I never thought of responding to the jeers with “do you idiots realize Mike Tyson has a high voice and he’d send your septum into your brain with one punch for looking at him wrong? Are you really equating vocal pitch with masculinity?” That would have probably led to more mocking for my use of big words. Again, kids suck.
What my interest in history has taught me is that everyone, no matter how awesome, is persecuted in some way. DaVinci was hated on for being gay. Socrates was murdered for suggesting that maybe a bunch of toga wearing gods didn’t have all the answers. Copernicus was excommunicated for pointing out that the sun does not revolve around the earth.
What all those people had in common was a strength of conviction. DaVinci rolled with a posse of gay dudes in open defiance of the customs at the time. Socrates accepted his death sentence with dignity, refusing to back down from his stance. (The judges that put him to death were later put to death themselves for having made a dumb mistake. Ancient Greece was on some real eye for an eye ish.) Copernicus, having been excommunicated and excoriated by the entire community, remained defiant. While in exile, he is known to have said (my updated translation) “those fucking dummies are gonna feel pretty stupid when I’m proven right.”
Now, being made fun of by a bunch of people for having a high voice doesn’t seem so bad. The giants of history had it a lot worse. I just want to reiterate the ancient wisdom that it’s always better to keep your head down, tune out the nonsense, and continue to work toward your goals.
Eventually, my voice did deepen. Even if it hadn’t, my relentless focus on being a good player would have put me in the upper echelon of athletes for my age. Would it really have been that bad if I sounded like a Powerpuff girl but still dropped 30 points per game? My anger only served as a distraction.
I was infuriated by mean, un-clever people over something that was outside of my control. I hope to never repeat that mistake.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has an elegant way of putting it:
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
The quote is not 100% applicable, because I wasn’t so much misunderstood as simply picked on, but the basic point remains. There will be haters, and you only hurt yourself by giving them credence.