When I was 13 years old, my parents moved from a suburb of New York City to Miami, Fla., and we moved there the Friday before Labor Day Weekend. I started school the following Tuesday at Palm Springs Junior High and the first thing we did at gym was take a physical fitness test.
There must have been 150 of us, and after the test the phys ed teachers graded our performance. The terrific athletes were awarded gold shirts to wear to gym; the very good athletes were given blue; the mediocre or average ones were handed red; and the train wrecks — the nerds, the losers, the freaks and the geeks — were given white. The school clearly wanted to make sure that the Middle School Lepers were easy to spot. The Palm Springs Junior High motto — and here I am guessing — must have been something along the lines of, “We will shame you into greatness.”
In the end, there were a dozen kids with gold shirts. The vast majority had blue and red. Two were presented white, the fabric passed from gym teacher to student as if it were road kill: Me and one other boy.
In the locker room, as the two of us were standing ostracized and alone beside our lockers with our white shirts, I said to him, “I guess it’s you and me.”
He pulled up his shirt and revealed a massive pink scar running down the front of his chest. “I had open heart surgery last spring,” he said. “What’s your excuse?”
Now I would love to tell you that we had both been reclassified as gold shirts by the end of the school year. Certainly if this were an Emersonian tale of spine and pluck, we would have been. We made blue. Not bad.
This was in a period in my life in which I went to four different schools in four years, and five schools in six.
I’m not sharing this middle school memory because, in the end, it was a study in resilience — though it was. Or even, perhaps, an exercise in stubbornness — though it was that, too.
I have now lived here in Lincoln, a village partway up Vermont’s third highest mountain, for more than a quarter century. Tomorrow marks my 25th New Year’s Eve in Vermont. My wife and I moved to Lincoln from a co-op in Brooklyn the size of a walk-in closet when we were very young, and among the first things I learned was this: The sort of mind-numbing focus that had served me well as a 13 year old at Palm Springs Junior High was going to be of little help here. I knew … nothing. Not how to stack my wood so that it would dry in time for the burning season. Not how to butter a brick to build a hearth for my woodstove. Not how to break an ice jam on my roof, as melting snow was running like cave water down the inside walls of my kitchen.
I was an almost archetypal idiot flatlander — a white shirt in the truest sense of the word — and my wife and I wouldn’t have made it through even our first winter were it not for the kindness of people named (among others) Rudy and Rosemary, Reed and Lisa, Fletcher and Hattie, David and Donna, Jim and Judy, and Jack and Betty. All that mental toughness I had nursed years earlier? Completely useless.
This, too, was a lesson in resilience. And gratitude.
Make no mistake: Everyone in this world is humbled. Humiliated. Hurt. The key? Never lose sight of the reality that resilience is not a synonym for hardness. For obstinacy only.
The resilient heart? It is also the open heart. As another New Year’s Eve nears — and another winter continues — this white shirt sends his thanks once again to a lot of the gold shirts here in the Green Mountains.
Happy New Year.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 30, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16, 2013.)