Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Anything you can do I can do better.

This isn't a statement of conceit. It's a reference to a Gatorade commercial featuring Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan from back in the 1990’s. (Yep, waaaay back in the 1900s…) It’s a cute commercial where the two athletes challenge each other to a variety of sports and the song “Anything you can do I can do better” plays in the background as they compete. 

I was an uber-athlete in high school – a jock, if you will.

I don’t like to use the word “jock” because the word has a certain stigma attached to it.  The majority of athletes in mainstream movies are portrayed as cruel and moronic bullies, especially to those not as athletically inclined.  The character of Biff from Back to the Future comes immediately to mind.  I've met those types of jocks in my life and  I understand why some people hate jocks. 

My mom and sister (who were not jocks) both said to me just recently: You were one of them.  A jock.

Yeah, I was.  I was one of them.  I wore my letterman jacket everywhere. I was constantly in the gym.  I spent nearly every study hall and lunch period in the gym. It was not enough to practice because it isn’t true that practice makes perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect and perfect is what I set out to be, athletically speaking.   So yes, I was a jock.  I was not a bully and there is a very simple reason why: I was bullied in middle school and it sucked big time.

I’m a tomboy - always have been and always will be a tomboy.  There’s no getting around that.  I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl – not one for make-up or dresses or any of that frilly girly stuff. This works for me now.  In middle school...not so much.

I’ve always related better to boys.  As a kid I much preferred getting filthy and bruised and bloody riding my bike through the woods, building forts and climbing trees with the boys than playing house or dress-up or Barbie with the girls.  On the rare occasions I did show up at Barbie's pool my G.I. Joe came with me.  I was even named an honorary member of a “No Girls Allowed” club when I was 10.  My hair was cut short like a boy, I dressed like a boy and I had big buck teeth.  

Exhibit No. 1:


Despite my goofy appearance I was never picked on.  I was accepted by everyone and all was right with the world. That is, until middle school. (cue the “Psycho” shower scene music)

Not a damn thing was right with the world once middle school started.  The same boys who accepted me for years suddenly hated me.  These boys and other boys I’d never even socialized with before middle school made it their soul ambition in life to torture me for being such a tomboy. Mean-spirited, bitchy-ass little girls suddenly thought they were better than me because they wore make up and the boys liked them and of course the boys don’t like you. Why would any boy like you, especially like you like that, you freak?  Look at you! You look like a boy! I’m sorry, are you a boy or a girl? Is that Kristen… or Christopher? Careful, boy, you almost went into the girl’s bathroom to go pee. 

At the height of all this wonderfulness, I was invited to a friend's house (very soon to be former friend) where I was promptly ambushed in the basement by said “friend” and other girls who were looking to beat the crap out of me. Why? Because I looked like a boy and they didn't like it. 

I was 12.  I chose to run that day. 

As soon as they told  me why they had invited me to the basement I panicked. I froze like a deer in headlights but snapped out of it quickly when one of them swung and landed a solid punch on the side of my head.  That got me moving in a hurry.  I slammed the door in their faces and took off on my bike as fast as I could.  I pedaled out of sight and found the highest tree I could climb, stashed my bike in the cornfield nearby and climbed the tree.  I sat high in the tree, watching silently as they walked around the neighborhood looking for me.

That day I chose to run.  I also made myself a promise:  I would never allow anyone to chase me away from anything again.  And that promise is the reason I became so obsessed with being the perfect athlete.  I would fight back against the stupid, insecure asshole bullies without ever throwing a punch. I’d always had natural agility and coordination but I was nothing spectacular, athletically speaking.  But I would be.  That was the promise I made to me.

To fix the looking like a boy thing I grew my hair long.  That’s about it.  Well, that and the sudden emergence of boobies.  Those helped.  Long hair and boobies. The rest just kind of fell into place.  I was never mistaken for a boy again once I reached 9th grade and that was just fine with me.

When I was 13, I agreed to join a summer U-17 travel soccer team.  It was the summer after eighth grade and I would be playing with and against girls who would be juniors and seniors and had far more talent and stature than me.  A coach once told me that a damn good way to learn something is to practice and play above your ability level and if you can’t keep up fake it until you can.  Here was a good opportunity to test that theory. I would take this cue again by my junior and senior years and would constantly challenge guys from the guy’s basketball team as well as some of my male coaches to (somewhat) friendly one-on-one basketball games and eventually ended up winning once in awhile.

Anything you can do I can do better…  

In doing this, practicing above your skill level, you’ll either sink or swim.  Even if you sink, if you stick with it it will be worth it in the end.  That year, on the U-17 team, I sank. Hard. I hated it. I’d never played on a travel team before and didn’t realize how much dedication it demanded.  I didn’t like my teammates.  We had nothing in common.  They talked about boys and dances and other crap I still had no interest in.  I was there to play soccer not gossip.   Plus, my skill level wasn’t anywhere near where it needed to be.  I got bounced off my bigger opponents and knocked all over the field and really did not enjoy that first year.

But it was worth it in the end.

The coach of that team was great.   He encouraged me to stick with it because he said he saw I had natural talent.  So, I did. From that time on, I almost always had a ball of some sort at my feet or in my hands.  I practiced dribbling my soccer ball around the front yard incessantly.  I grabbed my sister and plunked her down in front of the front steps to our house (which was my “goal”) and demanded she be my goalie.  I don’t know how many soccer balls I launched at her over the years but it was quite a few.  I nailed the side on the house (and the occasional window) with the ball on accident repeatedly. 

Meanwhile, in school I was actively participating in volleyball, basketball and softball.  I played volleyball only because my school didn’t have a girl’s soccer team until my junior year.  I started wearing the letterman’s jacket because I started being recognized for my talent with those silly patches and pins and needed a place to put them.  They were silly but they meant everything to me at the time.  

Validation.

My best friend and I spent more time in the gym junior and senior year than anywhere else on campus. If we had “late” practice at 5:30 we would be in the gym right after school at 3:30 to practice for the two hours before actual practice. In fact, we spent every spare moment and then some in the gym. We got in trouble more than once for missing class because we chose to stay in the gym and practice.  Thankfully, our principal was a former athlete and was sympathetic to the plight of the obsessive practicer (yes, I know that isn’t really a word) and was lenient on us.  In that way, I suppose I was one of them.  I got away with more than I should have because I was an athlete but I tried not to take too much advantage.

In Chemistry class my junior year, my assigned seat was at one of those cozy little black lab tables for two with the girl who punched me in the head when I was 12.  It delighted me to realize that I now towered over her. I had grown several inches since that day in the basement to what turned out to be my full height of 5 feet 9 inches.  If she wanted to punch me in the head again she was more than welcome to try.  I could've knocked her flat on her bony little ass with very little effort.  

Surprisingly, she was nice to me all year long and I reciprocated. We never mentioned the “incident” though it was always in the back of my mind. I even learned quite a bit about her family life, which was not the greatest.  I started to understand the reasons why she was so mean in middle school.  She was insecure and in pain.  To be sure, I will never understand why someone who is insecure and in pain thinks the best way to handle it is to inflict pain and suffering on others but at least I understood that she was suffering.  At that point my empathy took over and it was easy to not be angry anymore…with her or any of the other kids who used to pick on me.  They were all probably suffering somehow too.

By the time I graduated high school I had gotten quite a bit of recognition for all my hard work, and that was awesome.  Please excuse the ‘tooting my own horn’ moment I am about to have, but there is a point to what I am about to say besides just clapping myself on the back. I promise.   

I was awarded MVP of my soccer team junior and senior year and was chosen unanimously by the league committee for 1st Team All-League my senior year.  My senior year, I was given MVP of my basketball team, placed on 2nd Team All-League and was third highest scorer in the league, and was awarded co-MVP of my softball team and was placed on the “honorable mention” All-League team.   During the athletic awards assembly at the end of my senior year I was chosen as Outstanding Athlete of the Year.  Out of the entire school they chose me.  I was called onto stage and was presented with a plaque by my principal and favorite coach and got a nice standing ovation from the school.

End of tooting.

All of the awards were fantastic.  They really were.  It was nice to be recognized for all my hard work because I worked damn hard and who doesn’t like to be told “good job?" I appreciated the recognition but all of that paled in comparison to the sight of the kids who used to torment me in middle school standing with the rest of the school clapping for me.  Some of them even congratulated me afterward. It's a remarkable thing to look unflinchingly at someone who used to bully you relentlessly and see respect and admiration (and, if I’m being completely honest, intimidation) for you in their eyes. To have achieved it simply by bettering yourself without ever having stooped to his or her level is really, really cool.

As horrible as middle school was I wouldn’t change a thing that happened to me.  All of it made me who I am today and I like me.  The bullies taught me well how never to treat another human being.  Without their “help” and “encouragement” I would never have pushed myself so hard.  And from this I learned a great deal of self-discipline and mental toughness, built loads of character and met some amazing people.  I wouldn’t trade that for the world.   

2 comments:

  1. What an amazing story! I think there's a lot of kids in middle school today that could benefit from hearing that. Your Mom has every right to be proud of you.

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  2. Rose, thank you :) I'm hoping at least my nieces will take something from this. They are ages 16, 14 and 8.

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