A Sign of Belonging

Hockey team jacket
What’s the significance of a team jacket? Belonging.

Ryan will play hockey this winter on a town-based team in a middle-school league, continuing in a program that started this past spring. The idea is to serve as a feeder for our town’s high school program, which has struggled with low numbers of experienced players in recent seasons.

Ryan enjoys this program much more than the team for which he played last winter, where he struggled to find acceptance to the point that it began to damage his interest in the sport.

There has been nothing like that this time, and Ryan enjoys hanging around his teammates when he sees them in school or at public skating sessions. This is new; in past hockey seasons, he showed up for every practice and game but had little interaction with teammates at, or outside of, hockey events. This year, he identifies as being part of the team in a stronger way than ever before. He talks about his “teammates,” what they like, how they act in the locker room, etc., in a way that makes it clear he feels very much included (even if he, thankfully, sits out some of the more sophomoric hi-jinx).

This week, there was a development that I’m pretty sure will only help to cement those feelings of belonging.

What was this monumental occasion?

An order form.

For team jackets.

With the team name on the back. And his name on the front.

We asked Ryan if he wanted to order one and received an enthusiastic “YES!” in reply. Riley is insanely jealous. She is playing soccer on the middle school team and was already in envy of some of the other sports that have personalized jackets.

What’s so big about a jacket?

Nothing. And everything.

It is, after all, just a jacket. But it’s so much more than that. It’s tangible proof of belonging. It’s an outward sign of athletic ability. More importantly, he wants to show people he belongs.

I remember my first sports-team jacket, of the local hockey club I played for. I probably got it right around Ryan’s age. It had the name of the team on the back and my name on the front. My mom dutifully stitched every tournament patch on it. I wore it EVERYWHERE. It was a physical manifestation of self-esteem.

I remember ordering an old-school varsity jacket in high school, after I earned my first letter in football. I was a special-teams scrub on a terrible team, but I couldn’t wait to get that jacket and wear it proudly around school to announce that I. Belonged.

Ryan’s enthusiasm to do the same is a little thing and a Not Little Thing at the same time. It’s normal, and yet it’s extraordinary for a child that has at times struggled to understand the world outside his own bubble. If he’s like me, he’ll wear it (likely little more than a windbreaker) all winter long.

Ryan has earned the right to wear that jacket, through dogged participation and hard work. And I can’t wait to see him put it on and wear it to school.

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