For my artistic self, high school set a lot of things in motion. I dove headfirst into band music; I started arranging and making things up at the piano; I spent time learning about my peers’ instruments and what worked well (and badly) for each of them. I don’t talk a lot about my life before then—not publicly and not a whole bunch to my friends and family. When I do, a lot of it centers around my assault and subsequent events that put me where I am today as a casualty of that event. And it’s true that for better or for worse, my assault sent me down a lot of paths I might not have wandered onto otherwise. But tonight I want to sit down with you, listen to the rain that’s blessing Santa Clarita for the first time in months, and remember how a bright spot in my early life got me ready to fight like I do now.
When I was five or six, my parents decided to sign me up for a couple seasons of youth soccer. It was probably the least competitive setup you’ll find anywhere, but for a very tiny, very rambunctious me, it was a little slice of heaven. I got to run around, enjoy the world moving under my feet, and indulge my competitive side. I can’t remember what spurred it, but after two or three seasons of this, we stopped going back. My brother was getting into baseball and I was dancing more than I had previously, so other things rose to fill the gap, but I missed it. So in fourth grade, when large, impromptu games of kickback and kickball (two entirely different games, thankyouverymuch) started turning into structured soccer matches, I paid attention.
I want to stop for a minute to describe this environment for you, because it’s really a defining moment in my youth and a big part of how I define my childhood. I’d spent third grade dealing with an excessive amount of bullying explained away by “he probably just likes you,” and I was struggling to readjust to reasonable expectations of my peers when I started joining these games. Every recess (and we got three per day), we’d scramble out onto the absolutely massive field we had free rein over. At the beginning of the day, we’d pick teams. Our best two players were never allowed to play on the same side—a few of the guys were playing on club teams, and even at that age, there was a big difference in the skills they brought to the table compared to everyone else’s.
I was usually picked toward the end of the lineup, as I was significantly slower than everyone else and generally preferred to play defense. (I’m not kidding about not being fast—when I was eventually blessed with a nickname, it was Slow Motion.) We’d play with the same team breakdowns each recess; our numbers dwindled during lunch when a couple guys the year behind us had to eat with their own grade level, but we picked it back up before the end of the day. A few folks would join us on occasion, but for the most part, we were a core group. And, like our early-aughts Silicon Valley heritage might (though not always) suggest, we were a diverse bunch. Sure, we had more than our fair share of white guys, but when you counted everyone up, we had a little bit of everything.
The one thing we didn’t have was girls. I was one of two who played regularly and, as far as I can remember, the only one who made it out every recess, every day. (I should probably stop and mention briefly that we started toward the end of fourth grade and continued this ritual until we matriculated at the end of sixth. This group of guys was my life for a very long time, especially in elementary-school years.) I think, in the beginning, the guys didn’t know what to do with me—I was energetic and excited to be there, but I wasn’t that great, and aside from having the dance-enhanced flexibility to occasionally bend in ways they couldn’t or didn’t want to, I wasn’t the person who changed the course of the whole game the way a couple of our forwards were. But they were content to put up with me, and for my trouble, I got treated the same way everyone else did. They’d laugh when I missed something I should have been able to reach, and I definitely took a few soccer balls to the face, but I got the same pats on the back when I dove for a ball and came up muddy or when I turned a play around. While at some point we went from being people who played soccer together to friends, I can’t say there was ever a moment they made me feel like I didn’t belong. They’re the people who taught me how to swear properly (though they didn’t get to hear me use the skill much at the time). They spent their days needling me about my skills while dragging me along to the goalposts (read: conveniently-spaced trees). They reminded me—again and again and again—about the differences between free kicks and penalty kicks. They inspired me to up my game, but they did it without kicking me to the curb. And they never made me feel like my femaleness made me inferior. For a bunch of ten- and eleven-year-olds, that was pretty damn mature.
The problem with playing soccer at recess is that when recess goes away, so does the soccer. Not for the guys—most of them just joined the school team in middle school—but my motivation absolutely vanished. After all, school teams are separated by gender, and I’d been too busy coming home covered in dirt to make a lot of female friends previously. So I danced more and started hanging out with the band crowd, and while a few other guys bridged that gap, I started drifting away from most of them. Sure, I’d catch up a little if I ran into a couple of them at lunch, but when your most exciting news is “I shaved thirty seconds off my mile time in P.E.,” it’s easy for those relationships to stagnate. Just a couple years later, we scattered again, this time to three high schools. Connections deteriorated further.
As more of my friends know, I spent high school fully immersed in the band world, giving up dance (for the time being) to do so. And while that was great for academic/pre-professional me, it wasn’t so awesome for the side of me that still kind of missed hanging out with the guys who’d gotten me through elementary school. I saw them, on occasion, but it was from a distance—a glimpse as JV (and, later, varsity) soccer practiced on the field next to us, a seat across the room in a shared class. For awhile, in senior year calculus, I got to work with a couple of them again. And it was easy (at least, after we got over the awkwardness of we used to hang out all the time and we haven’t talked in years). We settled back into working together. One of them even shot my old nickname back at me one sleepy morning.
And then we graduated, and I didn’t think to sign yearbooks or get pictures. And I haven’t talked to any of them since.
I know, I know, I can hear what you’re thinking: well, that’s not the happy ending we were expecting. What’s the big deal? I’ve been circling around these memories, around writing this post, for weeks, and the one thing I keep coming back to is this: that group of guys taught me, at a very young age, that it is a reasonable expectation to be treated with respect even when I’m not the best person on the team. Even when I’m the slow one and it takes me two years to figure out the fancy trick the person next to me can do in their sleep. Even when nothing makes me stand out from the crowd. Even—maybe especially—when I’m the only female in the room. And honestly, I need that memory these days. The more of an expert in my craft I become, the more I’m dismissed and belittled by people who either think they know more than me or I don’t know as much as I should. The more I talk about my assault and advocate for the humans less safe than me, the more I’m told that maybe I don’t know my own experience better than the man trying to explain it all away to me. The more time I spend in the professional music world, the more I realize that there are still differences between how men and non-men are treated. But those guys I hung out with at recess for three years? They didn’t care about any of it. They were happy to teach me so I could keep up with the rest of them. They were patient when I forgot things. And they believed in me for who I was instead of dismissing me for who I wasn’t.
The real kicker, though: at that moment in time, that behavior was as normal for them as it was for me. If they spend any time remembering those days, I’d guess (and hope) they also look back on it fondly, but I’m entirely sure they don’t realize how much I still carry them with me.
Maybe it’s time to start finding them again. ♦
Thanks for reading! This is a rare happy post that I try to stick in between my usual topics—composing, brass playing, and sexual assault chief among them. If you like what you see, you can keep up with me here.