I’ve been occupied with trying to address, sometimes elegantly and often less elegantly, several unrelated issues that have cropped up in my daughter’s life at her public school and at religious school. A career of mostly public interest law advocating for people living with HIV, gay men and people living with the effects of poverty, immigrants and people with disabilities– for much of my adult working life has only barely prepared me for the advocacy I’ve needed to pull off as a parent. My parental advocacy has been much harder for me, more fraught and brought only mixed results– because of course the solutions to most of the tough things aren’t really individual solutions– the solutions would require much deeper reorganization of priorities and ways of doing things. But I digress. Things come up that need to be responded to now, or often yesterday– whether I have the time and slack to deal with a particular issue or not. And I get upset—really upset about some things which only makes the job more complicated.
There’s something unfolding at my daughter’s school right now. My close friends (mostly, but not all women, some parents, some not) in whom I confide these things— seem to fall into two camps—some are outraged themselves or laugh hysterically or shout or curse along with me about the stupidities, indignities or mistakes toward our children— the things that get under my skin. Sometimes friends listen and get very quiet in that way that lets you know that they think you are off base but they aren’t going to cross you.
Here’s the issue du jour. If I sound a bit defensive, well, I’ll be honest, I am. I am still not certain that there is any consensus on sexism as a real thing or that there is any agreement that certain “small” things—have a profound effect and matter. I think this issue really is a great big deal and I think internalized sexism has something to do with all the ways I second guess myself.
My daughter played on a girls’ school volleyball team last year and joined the team again this year. It’s a big deal for her to play. She isn’t driven to play sports and her skills are such that she doesn’t get a ton of accolades. I remember when she was a toddler and woke up wanting nothing more than to play actively at our park. Every day. She would wake us and ask to go to the park starting at 6 a.m. and once we got there (at 8:00 if she was lucky, for a toddler this was like a month from when she had started asking) she didn’t want to stop playing. I can’t ever remember a time in those days, when she initiated our leaving and coming home.
When my partner and I both went back to regular jobs our parental limits caused us to offer her the cartoon “Caillou” in the mornings when she was about 2—so we could get ready for work—and therein we, ourselves, offered up an addiction to sitting in front of a television rather than getting outside and running and climbing. Huge mistake. I have cursed myself ever since.
We kept her in a preschool that kept all the young people very active for as long as we could, but then kindergarten and ensuing years of being forced to sit for so damn long took care of the rest. She isn’t as driven to be active and we have had to push her to join a team. There was a two-year basketball career—with her other mom, M, coaching (M still coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls teams) but the male coach of the middle school girls team was harsh in such a way that she lost interest. Then she joined the volleyball team. These are middle school girls. Some/ many have never played volleyball before.
Our school’s teams—basketball, cross-country and others have had a firm and unquestioned policy since the inception of the middle school program—a policy of welcoming every young person who signs up for the team and shows up to practice. There have never been tryouts. They’re all on the team. M has coached basketball teams of 25 with skills ranging from unbelievable to learning to dribble a ball. This year, there’s a new volleyball coach who is perhaps rather old school. I’ve not met her. My daughter started making noises that some girls would get cut from the team a few weeks ago. Then M’s 89 year old mother fell and broke her hip and M left town (twice) and we didn’t investigate. (M’s mother’s health is a major thing happening in our family, which deserves more attention than I offer here.)
Two Friday afternoons ago we parents and the girls themselves got an email saying that the volleyball team is too big. They would be dividing the team of 25 middle school girls into two groups. Fifteen would be designated “Varsity” and 10 would be designated “Junior Varsity”. I was not pleased but ok, whatever. But the email went on. The Junior Varsity team, it said, will only be allowed to participate in one of the three team practices a week and will not be permitted to play at all.
I have absolutely no first-hand experience being on any Varsity or Junior Varsity team ever in my life (and for this reason precisely, I have wanted my daughter to have something better). But I know enough to say– this isn’t the definition of any Junior Varsity team. This is a dishonest name for something else called being removed from the team. For the record, it was unclear to me at that point whether my own daughter would be designated Varsity or Junior Varsity and whether, if designated Junior Varsity, she would care. But I knew this was very wrong, regardless of the outcome for my own daughter.
As a woman in my 50s who didn’t play sports for a number of reasons, and has struggled to stay fit and to stay active, (and I am still fighting but far from winning) I have a certain kind of expertise. Here’s what I know. This is 2013. Title 9 passed a long time ago. Girls and boys should all participate in being active and should be part of sports at their schools and elsewhere. This should happen more and more and more not less and less. Girls, in particular, still need to be part of organized teams and groups to stay active.
In 22 years in my neighborhood with a nice, safe park a block away, I have walked through the park and seen boys and men playing pick-up basketball thousands of times. I have literally never seen a group of girls out playing. Grown women suffer heart disease at very high rates. It’s still tough for us females to stay active and to push our bodies hard. As a young female, especially if you’re not exceptionally talented, it’s easy to give up. Most everything still pulls many of us females, to give up on being active. Exercise, the habit and enjoyment of it matters. Not giving up matters. You know all this.
Being outraged about the composition of a sports team, for those of you who know me well, is perhaps the last thing you’d expect of me—but here I am. The more I reflected on this particular decision, the more, not less, outrageous it seemed. The more I reflect on a lot of things involving my daughter and her friends, the more I realize that it’s the seemingly little things that get you. There are things that to many of us would not be even really recognizable as sexism or racism that become the turning point (for the worse) in the lives of young people. I think these “minor” issues, the ones where we all settle for things being just kind of crummy or sort of unfair are often the places where the trajectory is set.
It’s almost 100% true that when I listen to adult women talk about when they gave up on something important, something that set them in a tough direction for the rest of their lives, it was always a small moment like this. The good coach left and they never played again. They played something for a couple years and then the team got competitive and someone said something crummy and they never played again… you get the picture. Since we don’t live in an open, legal apartheid system, it is almost always, 100% a moment like this when the sexism (or racism or some other ism) takes hold and no one has to oppress you anymore, you just do the dirty work of limiting yourself and your options all on your own.
Anyway, I kicked off a lot of drama-rama in the past few days—with a private email from me to the (generally wonderful and dedicated woman who is the athletic director) and to the school principal. I used dreaded words like—sexism. I also sent the email to three of the other moms who I trust as allies. My daughter learned that she was on the Jr. Varsity team and cried a very little bit. She was so disappointed but also clear-headed. She ranted with a certain deep logic. She said, why would the girls who have the least skills get less practice? We should get to practice four times a week!
There have been other not private emails from three other parents—one of whom has a child who the mother described as having been overweight and bullied for this for much of her school life. The mother says she has been witnessing a miraculous transformation in her daughter’s desire and will to be active and to work hard– after someone (well, ahem, the someone is my own daughter) relentlessly encouraged her to join the volleyball team and encouraged her that it was a fine place to be and to learn—regardless of skill and that other girls would help and support you there. She said she felt fearful that if the message is that trying hard and being willing to work isn’t, indeed, enough– that her daughter would never take a risk to put herself out there to be active, again.
There was a difficult email from a parent whose daughter is a very accomplished athlete —who basically said we should all stop our complaining. And there was the letter of a mom who I’ve always liked a lot and who doesn’t mince words saying, this is a horrible decision and it sends a terrible message. The message is—the most important thing is winning. There have been many conversations, private and public about the wisdom, fairness, dangers or lack thereof, of this decision. A predictable, ok, and semi-crummy compromise has been reached. The athletic director and a father whose daughter is on the varsity team will coach a Friday practice for the jr. varsity once a week and my own dear M (with help from the mom whose daughter took the big risk to play) will coach a Wednesday practice.
And all of this is just the roughest outline of all that has happened and says nothing of the emotional roller coaster I rode for several days. I am learning and re-learning a lot, but there are a few things that I need to hold on to. One is that when 25 girls ages 11-13 want to play together and they say there is only room for 15 of them– sexism is alive and well and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I call on the phrase that I learned a long, long time ago—if you were a feminist of my era. “The personal is political” and what happens to one small girls’ sports team is not trivial because this is real life for those girls.
There’s no place else to go, nothing else but what happens in school and on the playground this year and the next and the next after that. These really are the things that shape their lives and their hopes and their sense of what is possible or impossible. These are also the things that shape their bodies and their health and their heart disease or diabetes or osteoporosis or lack thereof in the years ahead. For me there are many contradictions, one of which is that it is always hard to get myself to the gym and the recent angsting and writing of all these letters and emails was just one more time when I got too busy to go. But now my daughter has a Wednesday and Friday practice again—so maybe I should make a date with myself and go work up a sweat.