We would line up in the stale, drafty gym, our squeaky Keds nudging a
stretch of red tape that marked the boundaries of the elementary school
basketball court. A few feet across from us, team captains took turns
calling names: Tory, then Wanda, Lois, Karen. They were the chosen
ones, the First Picks. They swaggered over to their squads and faced us.
Hands on hips, eyes narrowed at the remaining pool, they whispered
friends' names in the captain's ear. The line thinned until the last
kids shuffled off to one team or the other. Outwardly, it was simple
gym class bureaucracy: Before we could play team games, we had to pick
teams. It went much deeper, of course. We were making the class
hierarchy official. We were anointing the winners. We were identifying
The system was brutal, but in the early '70s, "self-esteem" had
yet to become an educational buzzword. "Survival of the fittest" was
very, very in. In the gym class food chain, I was plankton. I was small
and bookish, with a morbid fear of bodily injury. Technically, I wasn't
even picked last: I wasn't picked at all. When the rest of the class had
been chosen, I was assigned to whichever team was unlucky enough to have
For the next 45 minutes, I would guard my easily bruised
shins from field hockey sticks. Or I would foul out in kickball. When I
mustered up the courage to hit the volleyball (which threatened to
shatter my glasses), it just flopped into the net. But nothing was
worse than dodge ball: 45 minutes of front-line combat. The
balls stung, and they left marks. I'd stay far away from the line that
divided the teams, my back practically plastered against the gym wall.
I was safe behind my teammates -- until they got tagged out, leaving me
in the open field, helpless in a red rubber hurricane. My mother tried
to help. She sent my sixth grade teacher a note excusing me from all
dodge ball games. That, of course, sealed my fate as a pariah. But I
was too relieved to care.
With one exception, I come from a family of Last Picks. My brother
may be the only man in America who doesn't fully understand the rules of
football. To avoid high school volleyball, my oldest sister took
driver's ed three times (now 40 years old, she has never had so much
as a fender bender). My other sister once hit a gym teacher with a
wayward golf ball. She swears it was an accident.
My mother didn't mind our aversion to sports. She considers sweat
unnatural and views an elevated heart rate as a sure sign of an
impending stroke. That left my father, a former track star, to search
among us for the slightest spark of athletic promise. As the youngest,
I was his last hope. When I joined a softball league in the fifth
grade, he'd arrive at games early to secure a good seat in the
bleachers. From there, if he squinted really hard, he could see me far
in the outfield. That's where the coaches banished me after the first
practice, figuring that most 10-year-old girls couldn't hit that far.
Despite my athletic inadequacies, I kept trying to find "my" sport.
The shortest kid in the fourth grade, I let optimism prevail over
reality: I signed up for Saturday afternoon basketball. I'd hoist the
ball from between my legs, only to have it rebound against the rim right
smack into my head. I was no better at skiing. As the rope tow dragged
me face-first up the mountain, I considered which was worse: the
humiliation of holding up the line or the aching brain freeze from
having snow jammed up my nose. Finally, like every other short girl in
the country, I took to the balance beam, envisioning my head on Nadia
Comaneci's body. Here my lack of height came in handy and I was so
thrilled to be not-awful at a sport that it took me a couple of years to
realize that a perfect cartwheel was never going to get me to the
Time takes care of a lot. As puberty loomed, athletics mattered less
and less and, finally, not at all. I formed friendships with other
gawky, giggly girls. We saw gym class as a sweaty inconvenience -- but
a perfect opportunity to reapply our blue eyeliner. Besides, by high
school, gym class had become positively benign. We were allowed to
choose our activities; noncompetitive electives included aerobics,
running and sex ed. At last, my mother could stop writing embarrassing
My father, ever the optimist, gave the sports thing one last try. He
took me to the golf course and handed me a club. I swung once and
missed. I swung again and watched the ball wobble down the hill.
"Maybe you should just walk with me," he said.
Once I reached high school, I didn't have time for sports. I was too
busy singing in the choir, playing violin in the orchestra and starring
in the school play. My parents bought countless trays of bake sale
muffins and never missed an event. My mother's approval was
unconditional, and I knew my father was proud of me, even though I
wasn't the sports star he had hoped for. Following a "Beatles medley"
evening, my father, who is tone-deaf, happily hummed "Yesterday" during
the car ride home. When I played Pauline, the cantankerous maid, in
"No, No, Nanette," he said, "You got more laughs than anyone!" And his
eyes shone in a funny way, like he didn't really understand where this
ability came from, but he knew it was a good thing.
Without any conscious effort at genetic engineering, I married a man
who is, at least physically, quite unlike myself. My husband is 6-foot-3,
strong and lean. Put us together, and our daughter should be average.
She is not. At 3, Lucy towers over her peers. Her legs are long and
strong, her shoulders are square. When she was barely walking, she'd
swing like a jungle monkey from the lowest hanging bar in her closet and
fling herself down the tallest slide at the playground. Now she's
working on her golf stroke.
Things have changed since my childhood. I'm glad my daughter will
grow up when girls' sports are finally getting some attention. But
after all those years spent convincing myself that athletics don't
matter, can I really morph myself into a soccer mom?
The other day, Lucy and I visited a playground that, a prominent sign
informed me, assumed no responsibility for accident or injury. Lucy
scrambled up a metal ladder that curved over sun-heated gravel. I
envisioned head trauma and spinal cord injury and wondered how we would
pay her medical bills. Behind her, a curly haired boy about her age
made it to the second step of the ladder and began to whimper. "You can
DO it," his mother urged. He clawed the next bar and froze. Above him,
Lucy hoisted herself onto the top platform, stood up and surveyed the
various slides. The boy's mother tried to push his foot to the next
step. He remained rigid. "Come on," she hissed. "That GIRL did it!"
I felt a moment's kinship with that little boy (his mother had better
start working on those excuse notes right now). Mostly, though, I felt
proud of my brave, nimble toddler. So, yes: I will go to all
those swim meets and soccer matches and field hockey games. I almost
look forward to them. Then again, who knows? Maybe Lucy will find
sports dull, messy -- a waste of her time. I've signed her up for a
preschool music class, just in case.