Every spring while I was in elementary school all of the children were sent out to the track and timed running a mile. A girl in my grade whose nickname was Sis always won it. A wiry little thing with a bowl cut who often entreated me to “hustle,” Sis was by far the most athletic girl in my elementary class, the tomboy. I was bitterly jealous of both her nickname and the attention she got for her athletic skills and often fantasized about being presented with one of the cheap blue ribbons that decorated the inside of her desk.
I wanted to be a champion. Instead, all of the teachers and students had decided I was bad at all sports. I don't know exactly when or how they all agreed on this (maybe during the ropes unit) but their unified perception meant I had no confidence to do anything but back them up.
Make fun of my swing. I dare you.
Every year I tried to change public opinion. Some days we’d play kickball. I was good at kicking. It was my chance to show them what I could do but it was always ruined from the moment we gathered on that yellow dusty field. The teacher would give the two most athletic children the privilege of being team captains. Sis always got to be Captain.
I would wait, awkwardly picking at my cuticles, as all of the students were picked for teams until it was just me and a boy named Andy Olson standing in the yellow dirt, Andy whose low riding sweatpants usually showed off an ample portion of his butt crack. It was at this point that the team captain would dither. Should they pick me or Eric? It was humiliation at its most base level. Still, if the captain chose me over him I always felt I’d won a small victory.
I’d get excited and so nervous I’d nearly throw up when it was my turn to kick. The big red ball would begin its slow bouncing roll toward me. At the same time I would start to run toward it, imagining our meeting with a satisfying thwack as my saddle shoe sent it sailing over people’s heads and the top of the school. People would cheer. It was at this point I would black out, regaining consciousness seconds later to discover the ball somewhere behind me, and my gym teacher telling me I could walk to first.
Lessons in sports were almost always cryptic and rushed. Stand like this, hold this like this, now swing. You should know this already. If you don’t get it now, at the ripe old age of eight, you never will. Ok, forget it. Just sit there and watch how Sis does it. By the time spring and the mile run rolled around I had given up and spent most gym classes cowering on the periphery.
The mile runs (or walk-gallops in my case) were followed with us standing against a chain link fence as we waited to have an imposing woman with a buzz cut measure our fat ratios with a caliper. I’d stand there, whimpering and winded, eyes pleading for mercy. The gym teacher would look at me with disgust and I’d be forced to offer my puny upper arm. She’d then caliper me with glee, squeezing not only my fat but half of my muscle tissue as well, leaving me with the beginnings of round purple bruises on either side of my arm.
I was scrawny sure, but I wasn’t prissy. At home I climbed trees and played catch with my mom. I loved nothing more than dropkicking balls into the backyard. I just didn’t have any confidence in my athletic prowess. But I could have. If some gym teacher had pulled me aside then and told me “Look, I know you have it in you to kick this ball, maybe not this time, but soon. I just know you are strong and tough, so of course you can do it.”
If they had made me a team captain once instead of continuing to reward the kids who had older brothers and fathers and those naturally gifted in the art of the hustle, then, just maybe, as an adult I could enjoy these things. Instead of cowering down the beach with my book, I could actually play a game of beach volleyball. I could high-five in certain situations without cringing. I could know the meaning of being a team player.
I’m convinced that the public school system was conceived to foster excessive confidence in those students who have already proven that they’ll be just fine while systematically humiliating the kids who need the most encouragement.
Me playing soccer with kids in Sardinia. I was bigger than all of them so nobody dared to heckle me.
It wasn’t until recently I realized I could be athletic at all. I’m not a champion in anything but I am flexible and fast and naturally muscular. And I can still dropkick a ball so high that for a moment it turns into a tiny speck in the sky, so far up that people shield their eyes and stand for a moment watching as it falls like a comet back to earth.