I found myself in a familiar (and dreaded) position the other day. I consider myself a different person than I was 10 years ago, even 3 or 4 years ago—a better, more put-together, confident person than ever before. I look back at my days in middle and high school and can easily remember the insecurities I had, how self-conscious I felt, and the way I dealt with those feelings. In one word, the way I dealt with feeling lower than and unaccepted by others was by avoidance. Extreme and complete avoidance. And, because of this, I continued supporting those-who-told-me-I-couldn’t's beliefs…because I didn’t think I could either, so I didn’t try. (I think that makes sense.)
I’ve been helping coach a self confidence program for middle school girls that works to build their confidence through running. It’s a ten-week program, and at the end of the ten weeks, each of the girls runs an un-timed, non-competitive 5K. Last Wednesday, the weather in crazy old Ohio threw us for a loop, and after weeks of rainy non-outdoor running meets, we had a 90-degree meeting. Yikes! The girls had done quite a bit of running on Monday’s meeting, and did their mandatory laps, and then we were out of things to do. A suggestion to play kickball was made, and the girls all responded excitedly that they did want to play, while I hoped that the coaches were not going to have to participate in the game. However, because Girls on the Run is a self-confidence program, and because I’m a coach, then I obviously should be modeling good participation and effort and confidence in myself for the girls in our group...right?
As we walked to that diamond, I was overwhelmed with old insecurities. I didn’t know where to stand. Or what base to plant myself near. Or what to do in general. And when my little team was placed in the outfield, I caught myself quickly moving toward the far far outfield…you know the spot in the grass where you can stand JUST IN CASE the ball might ever go that far? Yeah, I headed there because, well, there might be a huge gust of wind and one of those 11 year olds might have a super-human kick, and what would happen when no one was there to catch the ball??? I would be there JUST IN CASE. (I probably don't need to tell you that I spent every game of kickball and softball we ever played in gym class standing in this location.) When I remembered that I was, in fact, a coach to these kids, I talked myself out of running to the grass, and stuck it out by planting my feet in the dirt on the field actually near a base. I felt nervous and embarrassed. I, a 26 year old, who is relatively confident and happy , who considers herself to have moved forward from the teasing that she let tell her what she could and could not do back in K-12—yes, I felt intimidated by these little ladies.
But because I was forced to smile, to put on a happy face, to participate and cheer on the girls, I had to stick it out. And quickly I noticed how supportive these girls were of one another. I know that all of them do not particularly love each other, and they probably aren’t all friends at school, but no one booed when someone missed a ball, no one cared about points (we forgot to keep track after two innings), and even the girls who were nervous about kicking kicked and did just fine. No one laughed at anyone. I repeat: no one laughed. No one called names, no one rolled their eyes, and no one made anyone else feel uncomfortable about their performance. I wish I could have experienced this earlier in life. These girls seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and rooting each other on even though they were on different teams. There was no real competitive nature to the game, even though it was clear that a few of the girls spend a lot of time practicing school sports, while others spend little. I even went up and kicked. I even stood in line—not first in line, but I didn’t slink to the back of the line and try to keep standing there so I wouldn’t have to kick and get laughed at (not that I ever did that). And when I finally kicked, (and actually CONNECTED WITH THE BALL–eyesurgerynumberfivethankyouverymuch) no one cared how good my kick was. All in all, I felt as if all the girls (including me!) were accepted for who they were, that they had fun because they weren't worried about what their peers were thinking about them.
It’s funny that I am still having to learn these kinds of lessons as an adult, and it’s even funnier that I sometimes get the pleasure of learning them from kids. Just when I think I’m a great, well-rounded, all-accepting adult, I realize that there is still a whole lot of me that is not wholly comfortable with myself. In kicking that ball and watching those girls support one another despite their different strengths and weaknesses, I was reminded that things from long ago can have a rather permanent impact on a person. People try to forget their childhoods, their school days, the things that hurt them, but inside everyone, there still is that awkward child or teenager who was so desperate to fit in that he or she avoided standing out in any way possible.
And will playing kickball with a bunch of 6th and 7th graders matter when I’m dead?
Yes. It will.