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Equal Protection: School Rules

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Coach climbed the stairs to the stage in the main gym. It was set up in front of the basketball hoop, and his starters sat across the back of the stage in plastic chairs, knees spread, along with the varsity cheer squad. The room was packed, the entire student body present. A thousand kids and nearly all the staff packed the bleachers and the rows of chairs in front of the stage. They’d talked about using the football field, but with football season starting, putting the graduation stage out would have caused too much damage on the freshly groomed turf.

Upending the social order was one thing; but messing up the football turf just wouldn’t do.

The kids were a little rowdy, teachers moved among them to settle them down. It was late August, and the room was warm, the air conditioning not quite up to the task of dealing with a thousand-plus bodies.

He stepped up to the podium, tapped the mic, and then looked down at his notes. The presentation had been carefully planned with Suzanne, and the lawyer, and the school, and it said all the things they’d decided to say. But it didn’t really say a word of what he needed  to say.

He frowned, and cleared his throat, then looked down into the front row at Jody. She sat there in her skinny jeans and her pretty button down shirt and her hair almost to her shoulders, but carefully styled, her face expressionless but for a tension around the eyes. Three rows back, a boy who had been bullied endlessly for his intense focus on math, and over on the bleachers, two JV players he was pretty sure were together. 

Jody knew what was coming, and the varsity football players did, but most of the student body didn’t.

It was a good talk, in his notes, but it didn’t actually say what these kids needed to hear.

“I was going to read you a prepared speech,” he said, into the mic, but quietly. “But I think before I do that, I... I have an apology to make.”

The room was suddenly completely quiet, his words hanging in the silent, humid air.

“I have always thought of myself as a good person,” he said. “I have never wanted to hurt people. I have never raised my fist in anger to start a fight. I go to church. I pay my taxes. I vote. I give to charity. I keep my marriage vows and love my family with all that I am. I don’t speak unkindly of others, I almost never swear,” —this got a little chuckle from his team— ”And I work hard to be the best I can at the things I do.”

He paused, looking across the whole room. Even Jody looked puzzled, and off in the back, leaning against the wall, his wife’s eyes were wide, her mouth a little open. He met her gaze and held it as he said, “But for many years now, I have failed to be the best I could be. I have always prided myself on being strong, and capable, and a real man , but I forgot to be brave. I lacked the courage to stand up for what I knew was right. I didn’t know how to say the things that needed to be said, and I let it slide for far too long.”

He looked down, and the room was so still, like they were all holding their breath at once.

“It is entirely likely that children have died because I failed to speak up.”

A low rumble of whispers rippled across the room, and he heard someone close to the front row say, “What the...”

He looked up, squared his shoulders, and said, “When you come to school, it is our job as teachers, as coaches, as administration, to help create a place where you can learn. Where you feel safe, because it’s awfully hard to do school when you are scared. It is our job, as the grown-ups in the room, to set the tone and shape the culture of this school. We do that every time we respond when you come to us with problems. We do that when we choose what we praise and what we ignore. We do that every time we listen, and every time we don’t. We do that when we take you seriously, and when we dismiss you. And we know, we’ve seen for years, we’ve been told over and over again in trainings, that creating a safe environment for everyone cannot happen if we do not pay attention and take seriously when y’all tell us that something is deeply, deeply wrong.”

He bowed his head again for a moment, flipped to the third page of his notes, glanced at them briefly, and said, “I’ve been working with high school students for nearly twenty years, now, and I’ve watched ten children die because we either did not listen or did not respond when we knew there was a problem. More died because we did not want to see. And in several cases, while I will never know for certain, I will never stop wondering if I could’ve helped by stepping up, saying what I knew, or listening. I failed, and I am sorry.”

He put the notes back down, pulled the mic out of the holder, and stepped to the side of the podium. “What I am here to tell you today is that things are going to change around here. Things have, already, changed. You, this year, in this moment, y'all are in an entirely new world compared to even last spring. A few years ago, we could not have imagined that in this state, in this town even, a gay couple could marry, legally.”

There was another low murmur, a slightly angry undercurrent.

“I’m not here to discuss the moral or religious implications of homosexual relationships. It doesn’t matter here on this campus if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is the best thing since the invention of the spray tan. The fact of the matter is that gay and lesbian and bisexual people exist. Transgender people exist. Disabled people. Atheists. Muslims. Jewish people. People with blue hair. People with tattoos. People who are poor. Black people. Girls. And everyone, every single student has a right to come to this school and learn without harassment, no matter how different they are from the good ‘ol strappin’ Southern white boys we glorify so readily here. Our school charter does not say we will only teach you if you are Christian. It does not say that we will only teach you if you are straight. If it did, we would lose all our funding, but worse, we’d lose our basic human decency. Our state has gone down the road of bigotry before, with slavery, and it wasn’t pretty.”

The slight murmur stopped, and in the silence, he said, “I have spent twenty years keeping quiet about the things I’ve seen. I will not be quiet about it for another day. I call myself a decent man. I hear people every day talking about how important manners are in the South. How we are good and moral and superior because of that morality. And I want to believe it. I want to see it. And I think it’s time we stop paying lip service to the idea that we are decent people and start actually acting like decent people.”

“This is life and death, kids. It is a brother or a sister made to feel so small that they can’t imagine continuing another breath. It is a boy who has not never so much as kissed another human being hanging himself because someone told him he was going to hell because he was gay. He hadn’t even figured out for himself if he was gay. It is a girl being tricked and drugged and raped and thrown on the side of the road like trash when she didn’t even want to go to that party, and then being blamed because she somehow should have protected herself from being assaulted by four boys while she was unconscious. She survived the attack. She survived the rape kit. She survived the police interrogation. But she didn’t survive the harassment that followed, the name calling, the way people tried to protect her attackers by smearing her reputation.

“It’s about someone being punched for wearing a dress. Someone being knocked down and kicked because apparently the worst thing someone can do is come into this world with the body of a boy and the heart of a girl. Because apparently we think that little of women. Let me tell you about women. I’m no expert, but I pay attention, and I’ve watched my wife for twenty years. I’ve seen her make a pie, mend a heart, teach a class, and you want to know how crafty this woman is? She made an actual human being. From scratch. I’m told I helped but man, she put a heck of a lot more into that whole business than I did.”

This got a laugh, and an embarrassed grin from his wife.

“It was impressive, watching that, and she was doing things I could never do, in ways I could never do them. And yet somehow we think she’s weaker, just because she’s smaller.” He shook his head and then gave her a fond smile.

“So I do not understand, really, why we are so set on judging each and every single person by one white, male, manly, heterosexual standard. I get the whole idea of competition. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone to State three years running with our football team, and I wouldn’t have screamed myself hoarse when my son played in the national championship game with his hockey team. But you know what? I’m told they did better with him on the team than they ever did without him on the team, and that kid doesn’t look like any hockey player you’ve ever seen. I always thought he had to be bigger and more manly, and it turns out that Eric Junior is faster than almost anyone in the country on a pair of hockey skates, for all he stopped growing before he hit five foot seven.

“But more than that... he uses that speed, not to get more points for himself, but to get more assists for his team. To make everyone else look good. Their best players got even better when he showed up, and they’d tell you that themselves in a heartbeat. It’s not just because I’m his proud Daddy. He’s a tiny guy who sings Beyonce while he bakes, and he kills it on the ice. That kid has more bravery in his pinky finger than I have in my six foot, one-eighty. It takes more courage to even get up in the morning when the world thinks you don’t fit. Just walking in the front door is an act of strength when you know the people on the other side of that door aren’t on your side.”

“So let’s talk about why we’re not on their side. Or if we are on their side, why we’re not better about telling them. About showing them. Why it is that we aren’t doing a good enough job of making every person here feel safe and welcome?”

He turned and looked at his football players, and then back out at the audience. “I know for me, it was because I was afraid. Afraid that speaking up might cost me professionally. Afraid that speaking up might alienate me from my family, from my friends, from my neighbors. Afraid that it might make someone target people that I care about. Afraid I’d lose my job. Afraid people might think I’m gay, for all I’ve got a wife I adore and have been with for decades. Afraid that if I spoke up for the person being hurt, I might be hurt or my wife might be hurt or my son might be hurt.

“He already had been hurt, you see. We moved twice because he was being bullied, because I was too afraid that if I stayed, if I fought, that he’d be hurt worse than he already had been. I didn’t stand up for him, couldn’t protect him, and he grew up and survived and is thriving in spite of my cowardice. He found people who do stand up for him. He got hurt, once, and I watched his teammates fight for him. They said the thing to him that I never quite managed... ‘I’ve got your back.’ They don’t see it as weakness that he’s small, or that he bakes, or that he sings Beyonce while dancing in the kitchen. They see his speed, they love his pies, and well, they’ll put up with that falsetto pop music to have that boy as a friend.

“Think about that. Think about the fact that there are kids out there at some other schools who looked at this kid and saw something to push around, when if they’d been nice to him, he’d have brought them pie, for years. That several football teams were deprived of a fast and agile player because I didn’t stand up for him in practice and keep people from piling on him just because they could. That he felt he had to move hundreds of miles away to go to school in order to find people more accepting of who he is. There are professional athletes who travel miles out of their way to eat his pies and be his friend. Because he’s worth it. He is one of the lucky ones. Not every kid manages to escape.”

He looked down at Jody. “This summer, one of the most talented quarterbacks I’ve ever known came to me, and said, ‘Coach, I love this game, but I need to be true to who I am, and I can’t keep living a lie. I’ve known I was really a girl since I was old enough to understand the very idea of boy and girl, and I can’t keep living this way. I was thinking about killing myself, but then I realized that the biggest, scariest thing that might happen if people got angry about me being a girl was that someone might kill me, and I decided that I wasn’t going to make that easier by doing it myself, and if I was really willing to off myself, I had nothing to lose by giving it a chance. So I’m going on hormone therapy and I'm changing my name, and I’ve done some research and there are plenty of schools that let girls play, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep on, even while I’m transitioning.’”

Coach took a breath and said, “I never had any question that we would let her play. But I was so disappointed—not surprised, but disappointed—when three of my own football players hurt their own team by beating and kicking our star quarterback for the apparently unforgivable sin of being a woman.”

There was a low, ugly sound in the audience, and his eyes narrowed. “Yes, I said a woman. Not a tranny. Not a transgender. Not a crossdresser. Not any of the ugly slurs you’ve thrown at her in the past few weeks. Oh, I’ve heard your arguments. ‘He doesn’t have the relevant parts!’ Guess what? You try telling a woman who has had cancer that she’s not a woman anymore because she doesn’t have a uterus. Tell the woman who had a mastectomy that she’s not a woman because she doesn’t have breasts. People will fight you. ‘But he can’t bear children!’ Since when do we require people to have children to exist as their gender? Very few of you in this room have children. We don’t require it. Are you saying a woman isn’t a woman because she hasn’t given birth? Are you saying that a woman who can’t give birth or merely chooses not to is not female? Are you that ignorant? Do you not know anybody who was adopted?

“‘But he doesn’t have a vagina!’ you say. Okay, first off, unless you are actually in a sexual relationship with her, that is simply none of your business. It doesn’t affect y'all even a tiny bit. We don’t have a minimum penis length to be called a man around here, and we don’t go checking people’s crotches for the presence of a vagina if they tell us they’re female…” He glared at one corner of the audience and continued, “No, we don’t. And secondly, you don’t even know that. Whether or not a transgender person has chosen to have surgery or not, or has completed a surgical transition, it does not matter. She is not a man pretending to be a woman, she’s a woman who had to pretend to be a man for most of her life because we didn’t know any better. That’s our failing, not hers.

“She looks a little different from what you expect, but you can say that about a lot of people. We come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and colors and the world is better for it. In twenty years, there will be transgender kids coming into this high school who have lived as the gender they identify with since before they started school. Because we know now that letting kids be who they are is a life and death matter. That the difference between happy and suicidal is not so much whether they wear pants or a skirt, but whether the people around them treat them with love, kindness and acceptance, or condemnation, judgment and harassment.

“That’s right. The difference between life and death isn’t who they are. It’s who you are. You can be a hero, or a villain here. There are no innocent bystanders. It doesn’t matter how open-minded you are if you stay silent when someone is being abusive. I’m not saying you have to jump in front of someone’s fist. I’m saying you need to know when to speak up, and when to call for help.

“Sometimes all it takes to stop a bully is to tell them, ‘Hey, that is not cool.’ We have to change the culture that says it is more okay for a man to kill someone than it is for a trans woman to wear a dress.

“What are you afraid of? Think she’s going to turn you into a girl? It is not catching. And besides, I’d like to know what’s so bad about being a girl anyway? Why is the idea that someone would choose to express that so threatening? Does it diminish you somehow? Are you afraid that if you stand up for a girl, people will think you weak? In my book that makes you the strong one, and I don’t care what your gender is.”

“That’s really the heart of it, isn’t it? That we have been taught to consider women weak, less than. We teach you boys to be protective and dominant and then turn around and say ‘Boys will be boys’ when you cross the line. We tell the girls not to be sluts, and we tell the boys they need to have sex to be men, and then we blame girls when the boys don’t take ‘No’ for an answer. We tell girls they need to dress a certain way, but we don’t tell boys that they need to stop. And then you get this idea that it is better to be a boy than a girl, and if someone you thought was a boy says, ‘Actually...’ or does things that are considered feminine, it is so threatening. And you have to prove yourself stronger.”

Coach shook his head. “Stop. I’m saying it. Stop. You don’t have to prove anything. One of your classmates transitioning doesn’t threaten your gender identity. Gay classmates don’t threaten your sexual identity. A girl wearing clothing is not doing it for you, she’s doing it for herself. You don’t have to beat people to demonstrate your personal worth. You don’t get to rape someone to prove you’re a man. You don’t get to kill someone to teach them a lesson. That’s just not how it works. If you have to drug a girl to sleep with her, you aren’t just a villain, you’re a criminal. It’s not funny, and it’s not cute, and it’s not what everyone does. Good people don’t rape. Good people don’t beat people for being different. Good, decent, god-fearing, hard working people sit down with people different from themselves and they break bread with them and they offer friendship. They leave the judgment for someone higher up the chain of command, and I’m not talking about your daddy. They ask for what they want. And they take no for an answer. They don’t just take.”

“I feel like this is obvious. Be kind. Be safe. Be respectful. Don’t hurt people. Don’t make the world worse than you found it. This is not rocket science. It is not hard. We shouldn’t have to tell you not to drug people. Not to rape people. Not to have sex with someone without asking first and waiting for an answer and moving along if that answer is, ‘No.’ Not to harass people. Not to put your fist in someone’s face or your boot in their side. Be a decent human being and stop worrying about other people’s crotches. Or all the possible ways that people are different from one another. We shouldn’t have to make a laundry list of all the people you shouldn’t bully, that you shouldn’t hurt, that you shouldn’t rape, that you shouldn’t verbally abuse, because you shouldn’t be bullying, hurting, raping or verbally abusing anyone. Be better than that. Be a decent human being. We don’t need to fix the people who are getting hurt, we truly do not. We need to stop the bullies. You. Need. To. Stop.”

With this, he returned to the podium and flipped through to the last page of his notes. He read for a moment, and then put them back down.

“Now, I know some of you kids who push and hurt and bully have things going on at home. That you’ve got people pushing you around and sometimes the only way to find your footing is to push back someplace that probably won’t hurt you. And I’m going to tell you right now, that there’s another way. Come talk to me. I’ll listen. I’ll believe you. We’ll talk about what can happen. We will work to make you safe. Don’t channel your anger into hurting other people, otherwise the person hurting you, wins, because they will have succeeded in ruining you. Do not let them win.

“I’ve talked a little about being a hero. We have some people already who have decided to stand up and be heroes. The kids on the stage behind me have been through a peer mediation training, and have pledged to be available to help people who have been bullied feel safer. They can provide escorts to and from class. They can help with transportation issues. We will be training more of y'all over the coming months, and trust me, it will look very good on your college applications, but it will be even better training for life in the real world. We will have a help-line number that you can call to set things up, and we will have people on call 24/7.

“Whether or not your religion tells you something is moral or not, it doesn’t matter here. We will treat people with respect, no matter who they are. No matter their sexual orientation. Their gender identity. Their race, or religion or who their parents are, or how they dress or what grades they are getting.

“I’m done losing kids to suicide because they feel alone or like they will never fit in. I don’t ever want to have to take another kid to the hospital because they’ve been beaten. You are not alone. Everyone should feel safe here. Each and every one of you has a right to your bodily integrity.

“And that brings us to consent. It is very, very simple. Ask. If you haven’t gotten a clear yes to physical and sexual contact, you have to assume the answer is no. Not, ‘Push harder.’ Not, ‘Ask in another way.’ Not, ‘Maybe she’ll want it after I get her drunk.’ Not, ‘If he’s got a hard-on it means yes even if we don’t talk.’ If you can’t say enough words to each other to ask the question and get the answer, you shouldn’t be going further. And if either of you says, ‘Stop,’ that is it. You stop. Period.

“I’m not going to get into the whole morality lecture, you’ve got Mrs. Phipps for that. I’m not going to go into the religion side of it, you’ve got your parents for that. But part of being a hero is controlling your own actions. Do not be somebody else’s trauma. Don’t be their bad day, or the thing that makes them give up. And if somebody has done that to you, we can help. I know that we do not have a stellar track record. But today marks new policy and new programs here at MHS, and we have been training staff and students and will continue to do so. We cannot promise perfection, but we can promise that we are trying to do better every way we know how.”

He looked out over the whole audience. “We need to be clear. No one is going to be pushing rape accusations under the rug on my watch. Winning state championships is all well and good, and I hope we can continue, but under no circumstances will I prioritize a plaque or a trophy over basic human decency. I have already kicked three of my most talented players off the team for bullying and sexual assault, but I won’t call them my best because the best people don’t do those things. Good people, moral, decent people do not throw stones, cast judgment, hurt people or shut people out. Good and decent people treat people with respect even when people are not what we expect or understand.”

He stopped for a long moment, and then said, “Now if that’s all too many words for you, you better just listen to these. This is really very simple. Wake up.The last two words were nearly shouted, in his best coaching voice. When every eye in the pace was on him, he said, “We don’t treat people like that. We don’t let our friends treat people like that. We don’t let people get treated that way. You clear?”

There was a murmur. He said, “I can’t hear you. I need to hear a, ‘Yes, Coach.’ Now are y'all clear?”

The answering, “Yes, Coach” rattled the windows.


 

The kids on the stage each got up in turn, introduced themselves, and spoke for a minute.

Most of them just said that they knew Jody, and that they were on her side.

Mike Dunham, tall, wide shouldered with a wide face and blonde hair, said, “My cousin ran away at fifteen because my uncle said he couldn’t be gay and stay in their house. I haven’t heard from him in three years, and I hope he’s okay, and I miss him. Momma says he could stay with us if we could just find him.”

Annabelle Smith, tall and brunette, her makeup impeccable and her cheer uniform fit perfectly, said, “I’d rather play football than cheer. I’m glad Jody’s there, because I think I might try out too this year, if Coach will let me.”

Cody Hall got up and introduced himself, saying, “I’m bi. And I’m tired of being scared, but this is the scariest fuc... effing thing I’ve ever done. Sorry Coach B.”

Coach held his fingers up and rubbed them together, but he was smiling. Cody gave a sheepish shrug.

Jeff Parkson got up, looked over at Cody, and just said, “Got your back, dude,” and completely forgot to introduce himself at all.

Ella Etherton walked slowly to the mic, looked over at Coach, and then said, “One of the players he’s talking about put GHB in my soda and raped me at a party last year. And it wasn’t my fault, but the idea of telling and having people say it was my fault made me want to die, so I didn’t tell. I don’t feel ashamed about that, but I feel ashamed that I didn’t speak up for Jessica when y'all put her through the wringer last spring. And I wish that we’d had the new policies then, because maybe they’d have gotten kicked out before they hurt her, before they hurt Jody. No one deserves what they did to us.”

She walked away from the mic, off the steps, and out of the room. One of the counselors followed after. Coach looked like he’d been gut punched.

Jody, in the front row of the audience, stood up with a hand from the student next to her, and walked gingerly to the steps, climbing them carefully, holding her ribs, shaking off the offered hand from Coach. She walked to the mic, and said in a slightly rough alto, “I wasn’t going to talk. I’ve had to talk so much, and it kind of hurts right now, but I have to... I have to thank Coach for saving my life. And I have to thank these guys behind me for having my back. It’s going to be another month or so before I can play, but the fact that there are people in this school who are fighting for my right to be here, to play, and to walk the halls without having to justify my existence every moment of every day... it makes me want to fight for this school. It makes me want to live, and it makes me want to win, and it makes me feel like maybe I’m not just a terrible mistake.

“I just want to live, and I want to learn, and I want to play. And I’m not expecting everyone to understand, and you don’t have to be my friend if you don’t like what I’m doing, but if you’ll let me be, and let me do what I need to do in order to get through school, I’ll do what I can to make this place better. I’d really, really like to see us take State this year, and show the world that we don’t need bullies to play great football. If you can’t support me, and you can’t understand me, maybe you can just give me enough space to survive. And if you can support me, and you want to understand, let’s talk.”


 

Bitty reflexively clicked a thumbs-up on the YouTube video, and then leaned back against Jack. They were sitting on the couch in his apartment, the laptop on the coffee table in front of them.

“Did that really happen?” he asked Jack.

“Apparently,” Jack said.

“He... I don’t understand why he didn’t tell me sooner,” Bitty frowned, and then leaned forward and tweeted the video with the hashtags #thatsmyCoach and #youcanplay.

“Maybe he tried?” Jack said. “I saw him start to talk about something a couple of times where you just left the room.”

“I thought he was going to rant about the gays, and I just couldn’t.... Oh god. I was... I was so afraid and I thought if the subject came up then I’d have to hear him reject...and I wouldn’t be able to hide... but he... Jack, do you realize what this means?”

“Your dad’s not an asshole?” Jack guessed.

“They knew, when you were there. And the whole time, they were looking at you like you hung the moon. Jack, they knew about us and they loved you. Even knowing... I thought they were just impressed because of the professional sports, but I don’t even think that was it at all.”

“You’re surprised that someone might like me for something other than hockey?” Jack chirped, deadpan.

“Oh, you!” Bitty elbowed Jack in the ribs, but not hard. “Of course not. But I was feeling jealous that my dad was so impressed with the sports and if that wasn’t... He wasn’t looking at you as a sports hero, he was looking at you like a potential... and he approved... and...” Bitty lapsed into a stunned silence.

“Think it might be time to give him a call?” Jack asked gently.

“I... talk... I...don’t... but...” Bitty gave up trying to talk and stared at the frozen end-screen of the video.

“You’re not sure you’re up to talking right now?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” Bitty said. “I think I might owe him an apology. Or maybe he owes me one? Or I don’t even know.”

Jack slid his hand quickly into Bitty’s pocket and swiped his phone. “Call your mother and find out if they can Skype.”

“But...words...Jack...”

“Maybe it’s time to listen,” Jack said, and put the phone into Bitty’s hand.


 

“... I always will be,” Eric Bittle, Sr. said, on the other end of the Skype call. Suzanne was next to him in the living room.

“I’m sorry I didn’t let you tell me sooner,” Bitty said quietly.

“I’m just sorry I didn’t try harder,” his father said.

“I’m gay,” Bitty said, though he knew it was redundant.

“I know.”

“I’m really happy,” Bitty said.

“I know that too, and I’m delighted. It’s really all I ever wanted for you,” Coach said.

“Co... Daddy, I’m glad you guys like Jack.” Bitty leaned a little more against Jack and looked up at him fondly.

“Jack, I know you care about my son,” Coach said.

“I love him,” Jack said.

“It’s serious, then?” Coach asked. “I know you were crazy about each other last summer, but it’s been how long now?”

“Ten months next Saturday,” Bitty said, without hesitation.

“I can’t imagine being with anyone else,” Jack said. “I can’t imagine wanting to be with anyone else.”

“Well, if y'all decide to get married,” Suzanne said, leaning forward, “Best come down here and do it so I can help y'all plan the wedding. I never did get to plan mine.” She gave them a teasing smile.

Jack looked remarkably thoughtful.

“You gave up so much for me,” Bitty said. “But I don’t think anyone’s ready to start planning that any time soon.”

“Dicky, baby, you were worth every bit of it,” Suzanne said. “And don’t you forget it.”

“I’m... proud of you,” Bitty said to his father. “What you did at the high school. Are they okay? I saw it...”

“We’ve had some bumps and bumbles,” Coach said. “But really there’s been a huge shift. I made them do it and I still can’t believe how much has changed.”

“Not too much backlash, then?” Jack asked.

“Well, some,” Coach said. “But there were a large number of people who just needed someone to stand up and say, ‘No more.’ It’s hard to argue with ‘Let’s stop killing kids, and be more Christ-like.”

“You’re using a religious argument?” Bitty asked.

“I picked up a Bible and started reading passages the last time someone got in my face about it,” Coach said. “The bits about the prostitutes and tax collectors shut them up pretty fast. Oh, and this morning, at church, one of the old biddies there told me I was going to go to hell for corrupting our youth and allowing the gays to take over.”

“What did you say?” Dicky asked.

Coach looked at Suzanne, and grinned. “Well, your mother was standing next to me, and she might have previously, er, double-dog dared me to say this to someone’s face.... “

“Oh my god, what?” Bitty asked.

“Well, I said, ‘My son is gay, and he’s the most caring, kind, gentle soul I’ve ever known, and I’d much rather sit in hell with him forever than spend a moment in a heaven that included someone as hateful as you.’” Coach looked a little sheepish. “I don’t think you’re going to hell, though.”

Bitty looked like he was trying very hard not to cry. “Daddy...”

“I am proud of you, son. I wish I had made that clearer, sooner. I was proud of your figure skating. I am proud of your hockey. I’m proud of your baking and your kind heart. And I’m sorry I couldn’t make football a safer place for you, but I’m most sorry of all if you thought for a second that football was more important to me than you. I understand football, it’s easy for me, but something being harder to understand and less easy doesn’t make it less valuable or important. Every time it came down to a choice between staying with a team or your well-being.... It was no question in my mind at all. Not ever, not from day one.”

“Day one?” Bitty asked.

“We thought maybe your daddy might do an NFL coaching job,” Suzanne said. “He was going to do an unpaid internship, I was going to work...”

“But you had me,” Bitty said.

“High school coaching paid sooner,” Coach said, and then, at the look on Bitty’s face, he shook his head. “No, don’t you go thinking I made some huge sacrifice... Minute I knew you existed I didn’t care about that. I love working with teenagers, and I do more good where I’m at.”

“Mama said you moved for me. I thought it was to get a better coaching job...”

“I tend to be happy where I am,” Coach said. “I like taking what I have and making it the best I can. I wouldn’t have bothered even putting in the applications but for wanting to get you into a better place, a safer place, anywhere they wouldn’t be stuffing you in closets and walking you into doors. The jobs tended to pay better when we moved, but we took a bath on selling the last house. Madison is turning out to be good for us, though. Can’t say I didn’t think about moving out of state the last time, but I promised your mama we’d give Georgia one more shot so she could stay close to Moo Maw. I just wish we’d been able to get where we’re going sooner, for your sake.”

“He wouldn’t have come to Samwell if Georgia had been easier,” Jack said. “I... am glad he came to Samwell.”

Bitty wrapped his arm across Jack's chest and said, “You should come up here sometime. Both of you. Jack can get really good tickets for Falcs games.”

“I’d rather come for one of your games,” Coach said.

“Regionals are on the 25th and 26th,” Jack said. “I have a home game Saturday, but was going to be at Samwell on the 25th. I’ll get your plane tickets if you want.”

“You don’t have to...” Suzanne said.

“It’s spring break but we can drive...” Coach was saying at the same time.

“Don’t be silly,” Jack said. “I want to. They pay me absurd amounts of money. What’s the point if I can’t treat people sometimes?”

“Just say yes,” Bitty said. “Think of it as a thank you if you must. We want you there.”

Coach and Suzanne looked at each other, and Coach made a small, bemused frown. “Well, I don’t know...”

When he looked back, Bitty had an unfamiliar phone in his hands, fingers flying. Jack leaned over and touched something, and then another thing, and then Bitty’s fingers were moving again.

“Can you get the time away?” Bitty asked.

“Well, yes,” Coach said.

“Then that’s that,” Bitty said, poking the phone screen emphatically. “Too late now.”

“Eric Richard Bittle,” Suzanne started, but her son was already shaking his head.

“Nope. It’s already done, Mama. Can’t change it now, too many fees.”

Her phone buzzed with a text notification. “Dicky, you did NOT just get us two first class tickets to Boston... And hotel... This is...”

“Honestly, Mama, he’d be complaining for weeks if he couldn’t help with the cost. He likes it when I spend his money.” And then Bitty blushed and Coach guffawed and wrapped his arms around his wife’s shoulders.

“Suzie, remember the first time we treated your mama to dinner?”

“Eric, that was dinner. This is...”

“Easier for them to afford than that dinner was for us at the time.”

She looked at her son, who was smiling and biting his lips together. She looked at Jack, who looked amused and pleased and embarrassed all wrapped up in one, and she looked at her husband, and she sighed. “Fine. If you insist.”

“We’ll pick you up Thursday,” Bitty said.

“We’ll rent a car,” Coach said, and put up a hand when Jack started to open his mouth. “No, this one’s mine.”

 

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