Monday, January 14, 2013

What's in a number?

When I was a boy, I loved to sign my name with the #16 in the middle of my big, sweeping letter J, my first initial. 16 was the number of Dwight "Doc" Gooden, the 80's pitching prodigy on the NY Mets. I would fantasize about being a player on the Mets, like Doc, and of course, I needed to have a pretty cool autograph. I identified with it and what it represented - excellence, fame, heroism, and a blazing fastball. I wrote 16 on everything I owned - notebooks, shirts, my locker, the back of my algebra tests. That number signified something for me and I wanted the world to know about it.

This morning I noticed my son had placed #44 on his gym shorts. When he was four, we moved to Syracuse, where he was introduced to that number when I bought him a Syracuse football jersey. I remember him asking me, "why 44?" So I looked it up. In fact, it had an important history in S.U. athletics.  Since 1954, 11 players have worn the number and three earned All-America honors.  The three most famous #44s, Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, rank among the finest running backs to ever play the game. And the town is crazy for the number too. Proof? The university zip code was changed a few years ago from 13210 to 13244.  In 1988, when the university changed phone systems, the exchange was changed from 423 to 443.  

As the University states, "Number 44 not only has come to represent greatness on the football field, it has become a part of the university’s and the community’s identity." It is much more than a simple number. It is about who we are and who we want to be, which is what I was seeking as an emerging adolescent with the #16, just as my son is now that he is a middle schooler with #44 - identifying with something great, something bigger than oneself. As parents and educators, we need to honor and respect these symbols - a number, a baseball hat, a backpack, a team jersey - that adolescents use to show us who they are trying to be. And most often, it's something fantastic.  

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