This past year, for the first time in my 26-year teaching career, the smartest student in my senior English class was a football player. I’ll call him “John”. I knew immediately that John and I had to have a conversation. The conversation was about when he would stop playing football.
About five years ago, when the news about CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, started breaking in a national way, I had a flash of understanding regarding some of the thousands of young men who’ve passed through my classroom over the years, specifically the ones derided by their classmates as “dumb jocks”. I remembered the faces of the ones whose brows knit uncertainly when confronted with a difficult passage in a novel or a poem, the ones who eagerly, even passionately, struggled with the material, the ones who looked up at me with a light of understanding in their eyes…that then would fade and go dark.
This year, when John interpreted a poem, it was not like that. Instead, it brought a tear to my eye. Not only because his insights were razor sharp, or because his historical knowledge and his grasp of the work’s philosophical context was so deep and so clear, or because his word choices were so apt and his phrasings so elegant, although all of those were true. What made me cry is my awareness that it’s all so ephemeral.
My conversation with John was similar to one I’d had with other young men. I told him that the evidence about CTE suggests that the injuries are long-lasting, that the effects are cumulative, and that while some young brains can shrug off the effect temporarily, the damage is done, and that it will be likely felt in later years, in the form of cognitive impairment, depression, dementia, even death.
Over the last few years I have been able to convince a few young men to stop damaging their brains, but I was not able to convince John, and for that I am very sorry. I am also very sorry that we are not having a wider conversation in California and in the nation as a whole about why we continue to allow and even celebrate irreversible injuries to the future potential of millions of young people, and when we will stop.