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He turns into the parking lot by the field and pulls into an open spot in a fast, swerving motion. "Just drive the way you run", he would say. He jumps out of a small, blue car that has certainly seen better days, grabs a pen that has been resting between his teeth and puts it behind his ear. He reaches into the car, pulls out a clipboard, tosses it onto the ground, and with his head still buried below the dashboard, he rummages furiously through scattered papers strewn across the passenger seat. Finally he emerges from the car, swings a blue stopwatch on a string around his neck, and slams the car door shut.
He dons obscenely short running shorts which reveal a pair of bulging quadriceps. He is wearing old, unlaced running sneakers without socks and a grey t-shirt that boasts of a 10K race held in 1984 in Brokenbow, Massachusetts. The curly locks of hair on his head exist in a state of anarchy; they are wild and uncontrollable. He is sweating and his eyes are serious until he sees that we are watching him. Then the wrinkles on his forehead smooth out, the disconcerted look in his eyes is replaced with a glimmer, and he flashes us a crazy smile. He thrusts one fist into the air and nods his head down quickly. Still smiling. Still crazy. He is ready for practice.
Omo, as we so affectionately call him runs over to us, his clipboard under his arm, his stopwatch bouncing against his chest, his head shaking from side to side, wild curls flying about. The team has stretched by now but we are, as a group, altogether lethargic. We have spent long hours staring out of classroom windows, passing through the six hours of the school day slowly, like disinterested tourists in a museum and just as tired. It is a still, hot day and the sun is glaring. Now, we hang on each other's shoulders, already complaining, groaning about one thing or another. Omo comes over to me to ensure that we have stretched and to inform me that today we will be running the two mile time trial. I see the jaws of some of the newer members of the team drop. This is one of our most difficult workouts.
We head out to the street, stand along an imaginary starting line, jogging in place, swinging our arms, suddenly jittery because the butterflies in our stomachs have just burst from their cocoons. There is no rationale for this nervousness. Omo comes over and tells us to relax. "C'mon missies", he says,"this is the last two mile time trial of your high school career". He cannot contain his excitement. The man loves competition.
We run a hard two miles. We race past trees and grass and houses and "No Parking" signs. Cars whiz past me and I whiz past them and I feel freer and the sky feels larger and bluer above us then ever before and the sun penetrates my skin and warms me everywhere until I feel a chill down my spine and I am hurting and feel pain overwhelm me but it is okay because more then anything I feel the pounding sensation of being alive. At the one mile mark we are greeted by Omo's voice emerging from a face hidden behind a camera. Later on, he pops out from behind his car, parked off the side of the road, and snaps pictures of us furiously.
"C'mon missy!", Omo screams at the finish line, "your best time, right here." Click. Click. Again his camera is in mad action.
At the finish line we all amble about, sipping water from small plastic cups which Omo has provided, breathing heavily, pinching at our sides, holding onto trees, leaning over with mops of sweaty hair hanging down in front of our faces. Omo is in good spirits as are most of us. The adrenaline rush has taken over the pain, a joy permeates the group, we are suddenly giddy and full of energy, completely revitalized.
We proceed to walk the two miles back to the high school, jogging every now and then. Omo comes along; he will pick up his car later after he goes for his own run. Each of us exults in the pain and the pleasure of the run. As we walk, Omo comes over to me, puts one arm around my shoulder, and with that hand he takes hold of my hand and gives me a warm pat. Everyone gets their post-run "chat". As we walk, I feel somewhat suffocated within his grasp but I am in good spirits and do not attempt to squiggle away. Omo starts to talk to me about my run, "You looked good out there coming up to the mile mark. I mean, you're good missy, you're good. We just have to get you into some of that strength training and you'll be -". He stops when he sees some freshmen boys ahead running into the street, just missing a stream of cars. He runs ahead and as he yells at the group, his body twists and turns, writhing. Words sputter forth from his mouth and I hear him saying, "You boys must be drinking quinine water. What do you think you are doing? I mean, what are you doing exactly? I mean, you'd have to be stupid....". He shakes his head and walks away. He paces about in a circle for a bit, still shaking his head, kicking his feet together, consciously trying to control his violent temper; there is an angry child within him.
We keep walking and all hold our breath when we encounter the mother of a past team member. Luckily, Omo has calmed down and is in control. The two of them chat for a while.
"Judy. Bosworth," he says. "How the hell are you?"
When we come closer we catch the final strands of the conversation.
"Ahh, that's..that's great. It's always nice to know my athletes are still running. Enjoy your walk and this beautiful weather."
"Take care now, Omo".
"Happy Easter. Give my regards to the family." He puts his arm around the woman's shoulder, reaches for her hand, and gives her a warm pat. It is late September but she does not walk away confused. She must just know Omo like the rest of us do.
Omo and I continue to walk together. We get sentimental about this being my last Cross Country season.
"Can you believe how much I've evolved as a runner and with you, Oms?"
"I can't even spell evolved missy but, yes we have come a long way."
And so we do small talk. Or rather Omo does the talking. He can talk for a bit. He stutters when he speaks and usually repeats himself but he has amusing stories. He has some good running tips too but ends up talking mostly about his own running career. About the countless times that he was almost the best, almost the top finisher, almost the state champion. Then he'll talk about his father who speaks 5 different languages and is a Ph.D. and his older brother who was recruited to Princeton to play basketball and he'll speak about how wonderful talent and intelligence are but how the most important thing is to be a good person.
"....so great you're smart and impress people but you don't know what it means to be a good person," he says to half the world.
Eventually we reach the school and I rush off, realizing how late it is and how much work I have to get done. Before I leave Omo gives my hand a pat again.
"You had a good work out today. We'll take it easy tomorrow. I'll see you when you least expect it."
"See you tomorrow," I say.
"Anon." That crazy smile.
On the walk home, I think back to fifth grade when my teacher left the classroom for a few hours and Omo was in the building so he took over our class for a while. He had us running laps around the classroom. I remember hearing his hoarse voice encouraging us on as we ran around our desks and between book shelves, tripping on carpet and bumping into each other. We all thought he was somewhat mad. I remember seeing my teacher's face peek through the small window in the door as I quickly brushed by a chair and feeling that something was incredibly wrong.
Omo is the Boo Radley in my life. From him I learned the danger of judging someone before really getting to know that person. Labelling people without securing a deep knowledge of who they are is, as Omo himself would say, like "kissing your sister". I can still see the Omo that my friends see when I talk about his quirks, when they see the track team running by and he's sweating heavily and smelly and grunting with pain as his head swings down in front of him, like an angry horse. Perhaps not every coach puts as much emphasis on keeping a team scrapbook as Omo does. Perhaps not every coach is as obsessive about taking team pictures, about capturing every practice and competition on film. But I know that Omo knows his limits. I know that there is a warmth behind Omo's crazy smile. I admire him for breaking convention in order to do what he does best - in order to give. It makes me angry when I think about the time that Omo bought my teammate a watch for her birthday only to receive a rude phone call from her parents telling him to "stay out of her life". It is easy to ascribe indecent acts to a man with a crazy smile. Omo is special: he is special because he is generous, because he lives by his own standards, because he is true to himself, and because he cares about the people around him. He is special because of his crazy smile.
Many of the girls on the track team, particularly the newer members, think that Omo is a little strange, some even hide a shy fear that is sometimes revealed in bursts of giggles. I think everyone, however, comes to learn though that Omo is harmless. I think everyone comes to see that beneath it all, while his mind may be working on a different wavelength, his heart is always in the right place. Omo's role in my life has changed and he is now a good family friend. Before I left for college he made for me three framed collages of my high school running career and some great music mixes from his collection of over 1000 compact discs. He gave me a video of my most memorable races and experiences from high school: the Penn Relays when Bill Crosby walked me off the track, the hurdle race in which I fell face first, the cross country meet where Jen, a teammate, ran straight into a four year old girl. We were by no means a star athlete team; but we created our moments and have our memories.
Since High School, I have realized how important Omo is to me and have reaffirmed that he is the most selfless person I know. Recently I received a letter from him in which he gave me some news about one of my past teammates:
"I'm going to take Tracy to the Price Club and see if I can buy her something for her baby I forgot if the baby is a boy or girl or it's name. I'm sure I'll let you know. Enjoy the school world, and the Track World. It was great hearing from you. Please don't worry about feeling bad about writing. You do have to do your work, and we do have the phone. Sorry No E Mail."
It makes sense that Omo does not have e-mail. He takes us back to the days before doorbells and telephones. He will knock on your front door without prior notice - if you're home and not busy he'll pull up a chair, ask for no more then a glass of water and chat away. And while eventually you might look at your watch and start thinking about all that you have to do and all the time that is slipping away, you will never lose that warm, chicken soup, brownie-in- the-oven feeling that he gave you when he just ambled on in through your door, made your home his, and made you realize that we've built too many walls in this world.
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