I stood, in blue gym shorts and the pale t-shirt, featuring the Clarke Middle School owl, on the grassy field that was, in 1982, the spot for gym class volleyball. Mrs. Cook had imparted all that she could to us–the way to hold your fist when serving the ball, how to bump, how to set, how to keep score. Now all that was left was actually playing. There were enough girls lining the court that it was a fairly safe bet that I wouldn’t have to actually hit the ball, that if it came towards me, I could duck out of the way and let the more athletically inclined girls do the heavy hitting.
Dodging the ball, steering clear of it’s fast descent into my personal space, was a skill I developed. And while I could usually serve the ball and even get it over the net on occasion, volleyball, like so many other sports in my life, stood as an icon of fear. Because unlike mini-golf, where failure to hit the ball where it belongs only impacts me, team sports such as volleyball, impact other people–people who have hopes and expectations that revolve around the concept of my being able to return a serve or get a ball over the net. And perhaps even worse, is that in volleyball, once the opposing team discovers that I suck, I become a target. Hit the ball to the pudgy one in pigtales–she can’t hit it back they say. And suddenly ball, after ball, after ball comes flying over the net, right into my little corner of the world, while I stand, helplessly ducking.
You’d think I’d have remembered all this when I said yes. You’d think it would’ve stopped me. But when two of my favorite boys on the planet suggested that I join their beach volleyball team, I said yes before the floodgate of memories had the chance to surface. I paid for my team insurance and Ms. Cook’s class never crossed my mind. I loaded up on tacos at our team fiesta before the start of the season and only noticed how great the team shirts were. No, memories of the 6th grade volleyball experience were buried deep in my unconscious…until yesterday.
Yesterday, I donned a new uniform–black sweats and a red t-shirt with a new logo: the Deviled Eggs. And I took my bare feet down to the beach and in the Chicago cold of May found myself playing volleyball. And I missed a lot of balls. And the boys on one team–they did target me. But this time it was different. Because my teammates cheered when I hit the ball, even when it went flying off the court. And because I served 5 serves that they couldn’t return. And earned us a total of 6 points. Take that Clarke Middle School!
In the end, the Deviled Eggs won all 4 games we played. (Take that boys who targeted me!) And it was great fun. And I was still scared shitless. But I did it. And next Friday I’ll do it again. And step by step, volley by volley, those old voices, those old fears, grow quieter and move farther and farther away. Step by step, volley by volley, I find I’m less inclined to duck.