When I was in the fourth grade, my school had Olympics Day. Different kids were picked to compete in different events, some of them more typical activities like running, others more kid-appropriate (who can hula-hoop the longest?). I was chosen to run the 50-yard dash, since I was always one of the first kids in my P.E. class to complete all the runs. I really liked running. When my race came, we lined up, and when the principal shouted “GO!” we dashed. “First, second, and third!” the teacher at the finish line yelled as we crossed. I looked around. Four of us had finished virtually at the same time. Was I one of the top three?
I wasn’t. I didn’t see how I wasn’t, but regardless, three other kids got awards and I didn’t. I was already miffed because a popular sixth-grade boy won the basketball-dribbling contest even though several of us saw that he cheated and switched hands at one point. I was not a popular kid, and now I was also not a winning runner either.
Fifth grade, a new school, Catholic, on the other side of the island. I was still not popular, even less so now in fact, because I was the only new kid in class and not Catholic. (Also my school uniform had not been ready in time so I spent the first two weeks being the only kid in regular clothes, because I certainly needed one more way to stand out as different.) For P.E. the teacher had us run endless laps around the tiny yard between buildings. On one of the first of these runs I easily passed many classmates early on and headed for the front runner. When I caught up to her, she shot me a look and said, “Hey, let’s make a pact to run together the rest of the way!” Flattered that she wanted to make a pact with me, I agreed. We were the leaders for about 20 glorious seconds and then out of nowhere another girl passed us by. I started to quicken my pace but my new best friend protested “Hey! You said we would run together!” Oh, right, the pact. I slowed down. Now many people were passing us. We ended up finishing in the middle, in a big crowd of girls I’d previously passed.
Junior high, yet another school. I was small and runty, and stayed that way for years, and no one would ever take me seriously as being athletic, especially me. Part of me still liked sports, liked being active, liked physical exertion and accomplishment, but that part tended to get smushed very easily. When I got a rebound and dribbled quickly down the court, a loud girl on my own team said smirkily, “Ooh, Letitia is really into this game!” and so I immediately passed the ball to someone else to take the shot. Of course I did—what would ever make me think a wimpy shrimp like me could play basketball? By high school I stopped trying entirely. I was not athletic. I never would be.
This stuff all happened decades ago. Why do these particular memories remain so sharp to me? Why am I holding on to the resentment of what could have been? And what precisely do I resent? Do I resent a system that didn’t do more to ensure that my self-worth and the worthiness others deemed in me weren’t solely dependent on whether I looked and performed a certain way? Do I resent that I didn’t have more encouragement from my parents, my teachers, my classmates? Is it my own fault that I was so hypersensitive and let other people decide what I would be?
When I’m in a more rational frame of mine, I recognize that no one was deliberately trying to hold me back in those days. My P.E. teachers had huge numbers of students to monitor, my parents were busy working so that my sister and I could afford to go to college, and my classmates were just being the way kids are at that age. As for my own sensitivity, I was just being the way I was at that age. What I went through is what a lot of girls (and boys, for that matter) go through, and in truth I know I had it easy. I was never called “the fat girl.” Kids didn’t get beat up in my school or my neighborhood. I had friends and got decent grades and graduated without much distinction but without too many scars either. And yet here I am, well into middle-age, still thinking about all this.
I know woulda-coulda-shoulda is a pointless exercise, I know that dwelling on what can’t be changed is a waste of time, but I also know I’ll probably always regret that I wasn’t more active back in my youth, regardless of who was “to blame,” if anyone was at all. Regret is one of the worst things you can feel, yet I don’t think in this case it’s all bad. I’m an assistant coach for a middle school track team, and I’m pretty sure part of my motivation for taking this job comes from those frustrating memories. It’s exciting to see these kids get the experience I didn’t have, and it’s cathartic for me to be able to cheer them on. I’m the biggest dork out there, I tell you. I cheer and yell and pump my fists. I’ve screwed up the stopwatch a number of times and miscounted laps such that one of the fastest boys ended up doing 10 laps instead of 8 for the timed mile (and still beat nearly everyone else), but I try to make up for it in dorky supportiveness. The kids are very cool about it all. They wave off my boneheaded mistakes and thank me politely for my praise and enthusiasm. Maybe they’re sure enough of themselves that they don’t really need my rah-rahs. That would be fantastic if it were true—I certainly hope, in the time since I was their age, things have progressed such that more kids, especially girls, can think of themselves as athletes. But just in case we aren’t there yet, I’m plenty ready to rah-rah.