This is a journey in two compliments. It includes an NFL player calling me a “Killer” to my father. But if you stay with it, I promise it ends well.
I start my mornings with a complimentary cup of coffee.
It says, “with my help, you’ll be amazing.”
Our topic this month is the best compliment we’ve ever received, and I have two: A perfectly-delivered second-hand compliment, and the compliment that topped that—a group of hands extended in friendship.
The second-hand compliment.
Sometimes it’s the circumstances that make a compliment special. Like the time an NFL player told my dad I was a tough guy.
As an athlete, I’m a good bookworm. Genetically, I’m the combined product of slow-twitch muscle fibers for sluggish and Irish-ancestry-programming for small. I was especially slow and short at the beginning of high school, before my sophomore growth spurt, when I zoomed to almost-average-sized.
So, of course, I joined the Reno High School freshman football team.
At 5’2’’ and 110 pounds, I was ten inches shorter and almost one whole me lighter than some of the kids on the team, who’d already experienced their growth spurts. I was also the slowest guy on the roster. I did, however, have a high enthusiasm-to-skill ratio. And I’d played three seasons of Pop Warner football before that, along with most of a lifetime of backyard tackle football.
It didn’t take me long to impress the coaches. That was back in days before awareness of the effects of multiple concussions. So we weren’t discouraged from using our helmets as weapons. I knew that I could stop even the biggest guys in a tackling drill by staying low and spearing their driving knees with my head. So the coach would put comparatively huge Martin Squires or Steve Ramos on one side of a tackling dummy and ask who wanted a piece of him.
“Let me at him, coach!” I’d yell, in my high-pitched voice.
Perspiration rinse. Repeat.
The coaches never confused me with a useful athlete, but I was a heck of a motivational tool (and football coaches are all about the motivational tools.) Though I was smaller and slower than everyone else, I could knock them all down, given the right circumstances. So the coaches used me as an example, to encourage the other kids to hit harder. They nicknamed me “Killer” Gloster. I got announced at a high school assembly that way, and girls who hadn’t spoken to me in two years of middle school started saying, “hi, Dean” in the hall. (I’d look behind me to see if they were talking to someone else named Dean.)
Back then, most freshmen were not hitters, but across the field, over at the JV and Varsity practices, they all were hitters—and also big, fast, and strong.
When young, football players come in various speeds and sizes,
but eventually it’s only: fast and large
So I gave up high school football after one season and joined speech and debate instead, which didn’t require as much footspeed or result in as many concussions.
But that made me an even better motivational tool, because after that the coaches weren’t limited to the actual facts. They’d tell players that a kid named “Killer” Gloster who was smaller and slower than everyone had played his way one week into first-string Tackle (which never, actually, happened: kickoff team was as far as I got.)
It turned out, though, that one of my teammates in freshman football, Eric Sanders, went on to play twelve years in the NFL, as a lineman for the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions. Once during that time, back in Reno, he ran into my dad, who had the same first and last name I do.
“Dean Gloster?” Eric Sanders asked. “Do you have a son who played freshman football at Reno High?”
“I remember him!” Eric, the NFL player, said to my dad. “His nickname was ‘Killer Gloster’. Man, that kid was tough.”
My dad, who’d joined the Navy during WWII and went through college on a combination of the GI bill and a freaking boxing scholarship, was an actual tough guy, so it was awesome when an NFL player remembered me to my dad that way. (Thank you, Eric. Seriously awesome.)
The best compliment—belonging.
The best compliment I ever got, though, was friendship and belonging. After three decades as a lawyer and partner in a law firm, a few years ago I changed careers to write novels for young adults. (Good-bye predictable income. Hello, writing in scenes.)
The first time I went to a conference of writers for young people and saw that sea of introverts, all excited by story, who’d left their caves of imagination to pretend to be extroverts for a weekend, I thought, These are my people. This is my tribe.
Among other things, I went back to school myself, and in my fifties enrolled in the MFA program in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Vermont College of Fine Arts, the coolest place on earth.
It’s a real-world Hogwarts. And, yes, they even have a ghost.
I had some trepidation. I’d been out of school longer than some of my classmates had been alive, I was older than most of the faculty, and I was a male in a program that—like the world of writing for young people—was 90% female.
And, historically, I’m not great at fitting in. When I’d gone to law school three decades earlier, I hadn’t gone to belong, I’d gone to excel. Even in my career as a lawyer, I tried to stand out, not conform.
And, to be completely honest, I’m wound a little tight.
I tend to be enthusiastic and intense about the stuff I care about, which includes—especially—writing craft.
Some days, I think I should have a warning label
So heading off to the MFA program, for me, had the hallmarks of a titanic adventure—you know, in the sense of ship steaming directly toward iceberg.
“Graduate school dead ahead!”
Sometimes, though, surprise endings are great ones. I did fit in. I was just one more quirky writer in a group of wonderful writers. There were other people my age—and even older—also going back to school (and with the same trepidation I had.)
One of the things no one tells you as a kid is how hard it is to make good friends as an adult. But going through a really challenging two-year writing program together—which is the equivalent of knocking out a 12-foot mountain troll every single semester—is a great way.
The program was amazing. The people were wonderful. I got some friends for life who are writing amazing books.
And I got to belong, a wonderful compliment that still makes my heart feel full.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” Dean’s hobbies are downhill ski racing, which he took up in his forties, and Aikido, which he took up in his late fifties. So, yeah, he might still be wound a little tight.
Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster