A splendid west coast summer stretches on. Victoria seems immune to the global traumas of war, famine, economic woe, and climate chaos. Certainly, far away from toil and trouble, week after week the capital city basks in glorious sunshine.
Yet, inevitably, September duly arrives. Subtly, imperceptibly at first, temperatures dip. As each day moves to evening, dusk falls that little bit earlier. Among other things, it means a new school year looms on the horizon.
For an old lag like myself, the rhythms, and routines of the first week change little. Still, as I ready for a 39th year at St. Michaels University School (SMUS), I sense excitement, enthusiasm, and anticipation among the students. They are finally free from Covid and the pandemic’s tentacles. Eagerness and optimism abound as they prepare to chase their dreams.
My own dreams now come more in the way of memories. Five decades involved in school sport, as either a player or coach, have certainly provided plenty. Championships and near misses. Thrilling triumphs and crushing defeats. The satisfaction of preparing diligently, competing ferociously, and, best of all, being part of a team. And, with it all, important lessons learned or reinforced.
My mind drifts back in time.
May 2010. A much-anticipated 1st XV Rugby match between SMUS and crosstown foe Oak Bay HS is set to take place. The rivalry is and remains one of British Columbia’s best. Local derby stuff, two schools battling hammer and tong, no quarter sought or given. So many of the games on a knife edge, not decided until the final minutes. At stake is the coveted Howard Russell Cup, first played for way back in 1867.
The game does not disappoint. Furious end to end action. Slick handling, mazy running. Big collisions and crunching tackles. A large crowd, at fever pitch, roars on the two sides.
Entering the last quarter, Oak Bay leads 18-12. Yet, slowly but surely, I sense our squad taking control in terms of territory and possession. We ratchet up the pressure. One try, with a conversion to follow, will give us the seven points needed to scramble home with the narrowest of victories.
The game clock ticks toward the red. We secure the ball at midfield, move it quickly to the right. A decoy runner and two slick passes freeze the opposition forwards. A neat piece of footwork then sees our halfback escape his marker, slip through a gap left in the defensive line. As he breaks into the open, three teammates race up in support. A sole defender is all that remains between the four of them and a certain score.
Inwardly, I begin to celebrate. Hours of prep work, of building skills and attack structures, are about to pay off handsomely. Now, a simple read, a simple draw and pass, will produce a try.
Then, horror of horrors. For whatever reason, the ball carrier has a rush of blood. Fails to read the situation, eschews a clear and obvious overlap. Instead, he opts to kick ahead. Alas, the execution is poor and the ball skews off his boot. Lands, slithers sideways, rolls maddeningly over the touch line. A wonderful, gilt edged scoring opportunity goes abegging.
We do not recover. In fact, it is Oak Bay, given a new lease on life, which moves smartly downfield. As the full-time hooter sounds, the Barbarians rub salt in the wounds by registering an additional tally. 25-12 the final score, and Cup bragging rights for another year.
Our players are sorely disappointed. Gloomy even. I offer commiserations, to negligible effect.
Eventually, post-match presentations complete, I retreat to my office. Seek to quell the bile in my throat and the acid in my gut. A single, ill-advised decision, choosing to kick instead of running and passing, totally undermines an otherwise solid team performance.
An hour later I depart for home. Alone in my car, repeatedly I reconstruct the final minutes of play. Frustration and irritation gnaw away at me. The loss stings.
It is only then that I see her.
In normal circumstances, she would be unremarkable. Just a woman, perhaps related to one of our students, maybe an Oak Bay parent. Navigating a walkway, crossing the school campus.
However, the circumstances are not normal. Far from in fact. The lady in question is blind, a white stick extended out in front of her. Tap, tap, tap on the concrete surface, the tip of the stick swinging slowly back and forth. Ever so carefully, she negotiates a series of steps, then continues on her way.
Blindness has been described as a fate worse than death, so watching her makes me shiver. I ponder living in a world of total darkness, of the inevitable isolation and loss of independence.
My sour mood changes immediately. I regain a proper sense of perspective. Imagine and applaud her courage. Chastise myself for so easily taking my own health for granted.
While any anguish stemming from an afternoon’s sport washes rapidly away, a purported “lack of vision” by a teen aged athlete now pale in its insignificance.