What’s the End Game?

Darling Stadium a few blocks off is dark and silent tonight, unlike Friday when the Kecoughtan Warriors defeated Denbigh as a promising kick-off for the Class of 2017.  The loudspeakers let me enjoy the pre-game festivities from the white wicker love seat on my front porch.  When my kids are playing, I walk over during first quarter.  The stadium lights illuminate some confidence, but my brisk pace on the walk home later evidences the hint of fear.

My now quiet, quaint, historic street intersects a neighborhood with a history of violence, particularly during night games between Hampton City Schools and Newport News Schools, like Denbigh.  Last fall, shots were fired on one such game night, the game was cancelled and rescheduled, and there was a drive-by on make-up day.  Four houses down from me, hidden from view by my evening glories.

Police presence is high at cross-district games now. That night, I was greeted by a handful of now friendly and familiar faces and chatted with some of the officers before sneaking onto the sidelines to snap some action shots.  Some of my young bloggers had motioned me earlier to come join them in the stands; once I had a sufficient gallery on my SD-card, I sat a couple rows behind my girls.

Rapunzel and Snow White were laughing with their friends, a pleasant co-ed group of well-natured teens, unknowingly inviting me to take some fan candid shots.  At school functions, I prefer to experience the event from behind a camera lens rather than sitting in the stands.  When I walk into a gym full of teens and grown-ups at pep rallies, I look from the students to the teachers and back again… and I just don’t know where I should be.

But with a camera strapped around my neck, I fit in no matter where I’m standing.  I can even take some risks, stepping out into the floor during a routine to catch a shot I wouldn’t get from another vantage point.  It’s not quite as dangerous as venturing out into a shady neighborhood alone, but it gets my heart pumping in a way that the back to school routine has largely managed to stifle.

As I sat and watched my kids in the stands and my kids on the field, it occurred to me, as it has on numerous occasions scattered throughout the past decade, that I will go to high school for the rest of my life.  Most adults go to work every day with other adults.  I spend the majority of my waking hours each day with teenagers.  And though they aren’t my peers, I identify with them perhaps more than with my colleagues.

I felt I best fit at that game in that moment just behind them, a part of their moment only in so far as I was catching it on a camera.  I’ll admit, there was a PokéStop at Darling Stadium, so I alternated between catching photographs and Ratattas.  The simple motion of tossing a Poké Ball with a flick of my finger made me anticipate Charming’s arrival in just a couple of hours.  We’d been tag-teaming this new hobby for a week, and we had plans to go on another Poké Date in my neck of the woods.

Shortly after the Warriors clinched the win, an uncharacteristically awake Charming arrived at my place.  Despite the hour, we grabbed a drink outside at Marker 20, my old stomping ground from my summer of online dating, and we used a Lucky Egg to double our experience points while we evolved the characters we’d been storing up all week long.

The next day after my nephew’s soccer game at First Presbyterian Church just a few blocks from me and Darling Stadium, we drove up to Gloucester Point where I’d read online that we could find some rare Pokémon.  It was a gamer’s Poké haven.  Lures were constant.  We caught eleven new characters in two hours, including the elusive Pikachu!  I was giddy with excitement, like a school girl, like the people I spend most of my waking hours with ten months of the year.

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The greatest source of influence on my character comes from the inspiring and challenging minds of adolescents.  Getting wrapped up in this joint adventure with Charming to catch all the Pokémon is more than just an escape from responsibilities.  I’m experiencing their world in their way.  I remember when the world was the same for me, nearly two decades ago.

And navigating that bridge from childhood to adulthood was a lot like playing Pokémon.  There is this lofty goal that is way out there in the future.  You’re not even certain what the reward for achieving that goal will be.  You can’t know if it’s worth the time or the risk.  You don’t even know if you’ll ever get there.  It’s far off.  You use a Lucky Egg and evolve Pokémon to find some immediate gratification that helps keep you on track, but you probably won’t admit, out loud, that sometimes the quest gets old.

I believe the teenagers who navigate adolescence best play anyway.   They get creative by giving themselves short-term goals they can accomplish on their way to this far-off future dream of being a successful, self-sufficient adult.  Things like honor roll or a new extra-curricular.  Charming did that this weekend at Glouchester Point.  After catching a wealth of Pokémon, he taught me how to fight with our characters at the Pokémon gym there.

Last night, I had a bit of the Monday blues, missing the days of sleeping in and hitting the beach.  I wasn’t engaged with school work or computer troubleshooting.  I was bored of the routine.  Charming had explained how getting our Pokémon characters into a gym to train could earn him coins to buy items we could use in the quest.  He can collect once a day, so the more gyms where we have Pokémon at that time, the more coins he earns.

Last night at this time, you’d have found me creeping up with my brights on into a dark, empty playground, hoping I could get near enough to the gym’s virtual location without having to get out of my car.  No, there wouldn’t be much of a story if that were the case.  This was worse than walking in my neighborhood with the lights of the stadium and police nearby.  I was standing alone in a park, trying to fight other Pokémon and take control of this gym, cringing at every sound in the distance.  Riding the rush, I managed to get another fighter into the gym at First Presbyterian Church where we’d watched my nephew play soccer just a few days before.

A few minutes later as I parked in my driveway, my heart was still pounding.  There was this thrill in facing a fear, of putting myself in a situation with unpredictable outcomes.  I had a motivation with a timeline.  I wanted Charming to get those coins and buy a bag upgrade so we could store more potions and balls and fight more and catch more.

And the motivation itself is good, inherently.  As teens, with the future so far off, it’s difficult to stay on track.  If they’re lucky, they’ll find someone like Charming who inspires them to keep motivated with short-term goals.  For him, it’s scuba diving and flying.  For me, it’s writing and gardening.

But I can see how, in both Pokémon Go and in the teenage experience, the human mind is easily molded by motivation to seek and attain more and more.  I could never hit enough PokéStops or catch enough Pokémon in a month to catch up with people who have been playing since the game hit the streets.  There are always Pokémon out there, programmed by a game designer to generate and present themselves.  If I’m not playing the game, I might miss something; I might take a risk in the wrong park gym at the wrong time… because I lost sight of the end game.

I see it in my students and I see it in myself.  We want that far-off dream in a kind of cheery-eyed optimistic way.  When my students conducted interviews in class today, I heard again and again that they want to get good grades, go to college, get a good job, and make good money.  They’re playing the game, but there’s no passion in it.  Do we know what we’re after, really after?

Where is the thrill in the pursuit of the quest when we can’t be certain how the game will end?  When we don’t know what the payoff will be for our reward?  Our Warriors trained, fought, and won on Friday.  This weekend, Charming and I did.  Last night, I did.  But like Newport News and Hampton teens, when we’re seeking a thrill and immediate gratification, we can just as easily create dangerous neighborhoods, riding out that motivation to get more, catch more… always more.

I’m better for fighting.  The drama and the heartache, the disappointments and the failures of my teenage years.  I trained, fought, and eventually won a lot of battles.  That’s what shaped my character.  I identify with them, Snow White and Rapunzel, and they inspire me to be passionate on my quest, that I’m not too old to have an end game with a long-term objective.

Sitting just behind them, I fit, camera in one hand, Pokémon Go in the other, not questioning why I chose to be in high school for the rest of my life or why I’d been sucked in to an augmented reality game by my boyfriend.  Catching them all is an end game – the moments that make a high school yearbook and the Pokémon that show up in my kitchen.

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