virtual children by Scott Warnock

Mr. Sanders, meet Facebook

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In a favorite early article of mine about digital culture, John Perry Barlow asked “Is There a There in Cyberspace?” He wondered, back in ’95, if we could find community in those bits in the ether.

This question arose (yet again) for me in a surprising way recently. First, let me ask you this: Do you think about who made you who you are – who you owe your successes to? For me, this question rattles around a lot in my head, and I even have the answer in a short list. (I believe I have a blockbuster idea for a book about this; I can’t share it, because it’s one of those informational if-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you deals.)

My high school wrestling coach was Mr. John Sanders. In that list of mine, Mr. Sanders is near the top. Meeting Mr. Sanders when I was a high school freshman altered my life path. Through the crucible-like sport of wrestling, especially wrestling his way at Eastern High School, he was largely responsible for making me who I am today.

Mr. Sanders isn’t a big guy. But he’s tough, hard, and full of keen insights and opinions about the world. In many ways, he taught us more than he coached us, and he created a family through wrestling: People who look out for one another. He taught us much that transcended wrestling — if anything does transcend wrestling — and, especially when I came back after college to coach with him for a while, I learned much about his views.

One opinion he held was that video games were terrible. In fact, he was ahead of his time with this loathing of the digital. He hated the sloth and lethargy he saw associated with it. He sensed a larger disconnect. But does that not make sense for an old-school wrestling coach? The sweat and blood of wrestling are the most tangible manifestations of competition. Wrestling is the ultimate clash of the atoms that comprise the human. It might be the polar opposite of bits.

(Several of us once discovered a world class wrestler’s Twitter feed and laughed about how apoplectic Sanders would be if he saw that most of that wrestler’s downtime was spent playing video games.)

So when I got a Facebook Friend request from “John Pop Sanders,” I was stunned. Could it be that the great man had succumbed and ventured into social media? What next? Would he be nestled in his easy chair with his ice cream wearing headphones and playing Call of Duty?

I clicked the request, and the real shock was to come.

On the Facebook page was a picture of the sturdy man himself, gripping hands with one of his former wrestlers in a hospital setting. A long incision was carved across the top of his skull.

I had talked to him a few weeks before, and he told me he slipped on some ice and hit his head. Evidently, as I discovered by reading, the trauma created a leakage of blood into his brain cavity. This went on for a weeks, insidiously, until he began having cognitive impairment, symptoms that culminated in a stroke.

This is a 70+ man who can still build a house, show a cross-face cradle, take care of the farm. So when his brain failed, what must that have been like?

I went to see him in the hospital and was relieved that other than the jarring incision and its row of staples, other than seeing him for the first time with a beard, the man was unchanged. He was quick of wit and moving fine. His grandson, Brad, and wife, Grace, were there with him. He was on his way to a rehabilitation facility. As I write this, he’s already home. There had been a scare, but the worst seemed to have passed.

I stood and talked with the Sanders in a conversational normalcy that betrayed the environment. He had been to see a recent wrestling tournament. His grandson was doing great. Mrs. Sanders joked about seeing her (over)active husband lay around for a change. Lots of friends had stopped by.

I brought up the Facebook page. His family started it, and the digital villagers came in droves. The picture I saw had over 1,000 Likes. He was fumbling a bit for the language, but I could see how amazed and humbled he was by this virtual outpouring; some people he hadn’t seen in decades. He showed me the Facebook page on his iPad with a sense of wonder — 1 K Likes! — and pride.

Perry Barlow, in his essay, wondered if there could be human warmth around the electronic hearth. I saw a man like Mr. Sanders finding solace in the digital, and, in seeing his reactions, I was glad that in addition to his visitors he’ll also have his iPad.

In Mr. Sanders’ many messages to us, he talked often of hope — and love. Perry Barlow says at the end of his essay, “Groundless hope, like unconditional love, may be the only kind that counts.” Summer is coming. Then the next wrestling season will be on its way. To me, those virtual voices reminded him of his impact on that other world, that world of atoms. He’ll be back in that world soon enough, with that most atomic of things, a scar, to remind him of what is real.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Mr. Sanders, meet Facebook”

  1. Clayton just sent a friend request as well, thank for letting us know about Coach Sanders. I don’t think I’ve read anything recently with asingle much trepidation though.

    And let The Coach know he needs to make his profile friends only. :)

    “The man was born in 1940 and he can still kick my ass.” ~CT

  2. Glad your coach is OK.
    On that short list I am sure you include folks like AB and CW.
    We are all a product of our experiences. You are welcome.

  3. Scott, You have written many great pieces here. This is one of the best, a great tribute to a great man.

  4. this is probably at the top of your best columns ever list.

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