Essay of the Week: From “Ragdoll” to Captain of the Football Team

By Joshua Alexander Mattingly

She glanced at my nearly bald buzz cut scalp and my bony shoulders cloaked in a yellow basketball jersey. The length of the Kobe Bryant jersey I sported fit my 6’1 frame, however, the jersey was so wide I could have fit two more Josh’s inside of it — really, there was more than enough room.  She paused mid-exhale, whispering as if telling a secret: “Do you have, like, cancer or something?” I laughed even though it wasn’t funny and assured her I didn’t have “cancer or something.”

I continued to gym class, hearing my teacher bellow: “PUSH-UPS!!” He blew his whistle. An automated voice from a speaker in the gymnasium counted: “Down-Up-One.” My arms bore a disturbing resemblance to uncooked spaghetti as they quaked underneath me. “Down-Up-Two.” I weighed a mere 140 pounds, yet it felt like I was two tons. “Down-Up-Three.”  My lanky body felt so heavy that I thought I had a better chance at physically pushing the earth down than lifting myself off the floor again. I felt myself crash to the hardwood floor.

I hated my helplessness with the simple task of doing push-ups, but I was too timid to travel onto the unpaved roads of change until one surreal moment:

He lays on his back in the middle of a 4 lane intersection in the dead of night. Someone is yelling, but to the 13 year old, it sounds as if he were underwater. He squints and strains but can’t find the source of the voice. He begins to realize that his eyelids are wide open, yet he is unable to see the world around him. He clutches his face trying to reassure himself that his eyes are still in his head. He identifies the horrific sounds of wet tires slashing over asphalt near his head. He digs his fingertips into coarse pavement and begins to slide his body towards the sidewalk. Each passing second in which he is not flattened by oncoming traffic only amplifies the feeling of trepidation he holds in his stomach. His nails grind and crack as he crawls along, devoid of two of his five senses. He clenches onto the small protrusions in the asphalt feeling his fingertips tear; his palms fill with blood. Sheer terror fuels him to continue forward. The voice straps him into a stretcher. He tries to speak back and finds that in this frightening moment of his life, he no longer possesses the ability to pronounce words. His body convulses despite his will. He cannot see, hear, speak, or move. He feels trapped. As the ambulance shudders beneath him he wonders why he has been lead so close to death yet given a second chance at life. He never saw the pickup truck that hit him. He only recalls feeling his body twirling in the air and falling like a ragdoll.

Two years later, the ragdoll stands at 230lbs in front of 30 peers with eyes fixated on him waiting for his direction as football captain. ln those two years, his contentment grows in falling in love with new things: weightlifting, science and his favorite—poetry.  

The shred of lined notebook paper in his hand read: “white, empty, fold, fire, grasshopper, sour.” Dr. Moore announces to the class: “You have a list of seemingly random words. Make a sestina using them.”  He hears sighs of frustration around the classroom while he holds the paper to the light as if he were a store clerk checking if a dollar bill is real. His gaze remains stuck on the piece of paper above him. He wonders if his classmates have taken note of his goofy posture. The 15 minute class exercise grows into his love for poetry. He begins to furiously write a sestina as the art form becomes his catharsis.

Poetry produced that fulfillment I sought as a freshman lying facedown in the gym.

Joshua Alexander Mattingly, a 2017 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, will be a freshman at Fordham University in September

Comments are closed.