In Your Youth, Did You You Ever Discover That You Were Unexpectedly Good at Something?

I was a scrawny, geeky kid.

Through elementary school and middle school, I was a good student. Often a great student. I also played recreational soccer, but I didn’t consider myself particularly good at it. In pretty much any situation, if you pitted me against a jock, I would gladly bet on the jock.

This story is completely random, by the way, but it came to mind the other day and I thought it might be fun to share. And perhaps it’ll trigger a happy memory for you too.

In my 7th grade gym class, everyone had to participate in the presidential fitness test. We had to run a mile in a certain time, do X situps, sit and reach (I was terrible at that), etc. In hindsight, it was a little odd.

One of the tests was the pullup test. Boys my age needed to do around 4 pullups in front of the entire class. My memory is a bit hazy, but I seem to recall most kids either barely missing it or barely making it.

My last name starts with S, so I was near the end of the class. A few minutes before it was my turn, another kid–we’ll call him Brian–had his pullup test. Brian was the type of kid who had hit puberty a few years early. He was a big guy for his age, and he was a bit of a troublemaker and a bully. I think he had gotten in a fight the week before.

Brian stepped up and rattled off 11 pullups like it was nothing. It was by far the most of anyone in the class, and he seemed pretty pleased with himself. In my memory, he was wearing a black leather jacket while doing the pullups, but more likely it was the standard-issue purple shirts and shorts we were subjected to wear in gym class.

Soon it was my turn. Again, I was a scrawny kid, and I was just hoping to not make a fool of myself in front of the class.

I reached up to the bar and completed a pullup. 1. Then 2, 3…and 4! I did it!

But something else was happening. I realized as I completed those first few pullups that I was so scrawny that it really wasn’t difficult to lift my body towards the bar. I was doing the pullups not because I was strong, but rather because I was small.

So I kept going. 5, 6, 7.

There are only a few moments in my youth when I wanted the spotlight and also actually had the spotlight (there were far more times when I didn’t want the spotlight or got it at the wrong moment, like when I learned that Bob Marley wasn’t the guy in A Christmas Carol).

This was one of those moments. My classmates were paying attention, and–much to my surprise–they were rooting for me. I doubt half of them even knew my name, but they knew that the geek was unexpectedly challenging the bully in a pullup competition.

So I kept going. 8. I started to feel it at this point. My arms were getting tired. 9. My rhythm broke, and I was doing all I could to keep moving. 10. I lowered myself slowly after 10 and hung there for a moment. I figured I might get one final burst of energy and settle for a tie.

In a movie, I would have made it. But this was real life, and I’d reached my limit. I dropped to the ground.

My classmates immediately lost interest, but to my surprise, Brian came up to me and said something to the effect of, “You had my worried there. Well done.” Then he lit a cigarette and drove away. (My memory of this 13-year-old may be flawed.)

That’s the story of how I unexpectedly learned that I was good at pullups, at least for one day. Can you think of anything like this from your youth, whether it’s a physical skill, an academic one, or something completely random? Something that you truly didn’t know you were good at until you actually did it, and you were pleasantly surprised.

10 thoughts on “In Your Youth, Did You You Ever Discover That You Were Unexpectedly Good at Something?”

  1. Not as inspiring, more of a party trick(s), but I can push my belly out and look like I’m pregnant, and I can make the sound of a bottle or can pouring liquid into a cup, kind of a bubbly sort of sound, not streaming… difficult to explain, but for whatever reason, I can’t find anyone else who can do it. 😀

  2. One time just after high school I was listening to a conversation between two of my friends who were both exceptionally good at math. I mean good enough for M.I.T for instance. Anyway, I was able to solve a mental math problem involving two 3-digit numbers quicker and more accurately than either of them. It was a great thrill because in a practical sense both far outpace me mathematically…they are engineers today. The upside is that since that day I have always felt better about my math skills.
    I hope 17 still counts as being a kid:)

  3. Jamey,

    One of the first “adult” games I learned was Chess, taught to me by my father who had taught himself to play, as a boy. In his youth, growing-up in the coal region of PA, his folks certainly didn’t have money for a chess set. Using a beaten-up copy of Monopoly, he used the green houses as pawns and the red hotels as the major pieces, by writing their type in a comprehensible code (“BQ” for Black Queen or “WP” for White Pawn), as they were made from wood, not the plastic pieces which would prove ubiquitous a few decades later.

    So flash forward to the 70s, and now I’m learning Chess from this man. I could typically hold my own against him, winning one out of three games. Admittedly, I never won two out of three games against the man and he passed he away far too young for him to teach my daughter. But, he did leave me with a very strong love of the game and moreover a keen level of play which served me well in a number of situations, in which I found myself pitted against “good” players. In a number of cases, they were good…but they simply didn’t have a teacher who taught me not on only the basics, but how to understand every piece and how they worked together. I still highly value some pieces over others, and probably take a bit more time than others to make move, but on a good day, I can play for hours and beat multiple opponents. What I learned from my father though is not just win, but instruct.


  4. I love the descriptors of “Brian”…also, is that photo from the Halloween when you dressed as a Japanese businessman? (Another story for another day…probably already told on this blog.)

    While I can’t say I’ve ever surprised myself by being unexpectedly good at something, I always appreciate a good underdog story, and this entry had that feel for sure!

  5. I’m pretty good at aim and shoot. Found out at a fair where everything is rigged. Played a aim and shoot with a rubber sucker end. It bounced off the board every time. My dad was watching me and he told me at the end that I hit a bullseye. Didn’t stick so no prize for me.


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