In the neat little timeline of my high school narrative, there’s a weird thing happening. It starts gradually, then spirals out, taking over my days, filling up the tail-end of my junior year.

The regular soccer season has been over for weeks. The regionals, however, are still going strong.

The seventeen-year-old version of Brenna has … a complicated relationship with soccer. Which really means that she has a complicated relationship with organized sports, and honestly, with group-activities in general.

I’d like to just very quickly point out that despite a deep and abiding love of horror movies, a persistent fascination with anatomy and dissection, and a tendency to ask inappropriate and slightly clinical questions in situations where most people would know that the correct response is sympathy-plus-hugs, I am not remotely antisocial.

I’ve always appreciated company and enjoyed my friends. I like going places and meeting people and having conversations and sharing ideas. I just prefer to do most of these activities one-on-one—or, if I have to be in a group, I like that group to be composed of people I already know really well. The concept of being part of a team is about the most foreign idea imaginable.

The thing is, I am not a competitive person.

Oh, I can occasionally get motivated to do something that comes close-ish to the outer range of my ability, or work myself to a storm of minor productivity. Sometimes.

I can strap in or buckle down or exert effort. Kind of. I mean, I must be able to work up the necessary energy once in a while, because people usually want me on their team in PE* and I always do really well whenever we have a Jeopardy-style unit-review in Spanish. Mostly because the prize for knowing the answers is candy.

But when it comes to soccer, I honestly don’t think too much about the mechanics of competition, what it means, or if it means anything, or whether I should be enthusiastic or emotionally invested. It’s just this thing I do because I’ve been doing it my whole life, and this thing I do because if I don’t, then I might start to lose my precious sense of sphinx-like calm and get too frazzled and restless to even stand still for two damn seconds.

Soccer is a recreational hobby and a necessary outlet and a coping mechanism. It is not the thing that defines me.

(Except when it is.)

Sometimes the games are more than 100 miles away. We get out of class two hours early and congregate in the locker rooms to change into our uniforms before filing onto the bus.

Most of the other girls complain about the indignity and the noise and the general discomfort. The buses are crowded, chaotic, always breaking down, and once on one of the longer rides, our student trainer gets so carsick he spends the first twenty minutes of our game throwing up behind the other team’s baseball dugout.

But I actually look forward to the ride. I’m in two creative writing classes and one lit. class, and I pass the the time by writing essays and stories, or else copying down in loving detail everything that has happened over the course of the day. The bus is relaxing. Sometimes I fall asleep, which is a mildly exciting bonus, because teenage-Brenna never sleeps.

(If we’re going to be completely honest, the bus is pretty much my favorite part of soccer.)

The season is like a long, circular folksong or an epic poem. It goes on forever.

The thing is … we just keep winning.

And sometimes the games are very close. They flash back and forth for ninety brutal minutes, tied until the clock runs down. They go into overtime and second overtime and sudden-death overtime. They go to shootouts and we stand shivering and fraught on the center line, holding hands, holding our breath until the whistle blows, the shot is taken and the save is made. Or not.

quarter finals

But the thing is, we are always the ones who make more of them.


Since I made varsity, people have been expressing a wide array of attitudes, ranging from derision to disbelief to bafflement, to frank, unquestioning admiration.

Over the course of the season, I’ve gotten used to people telling me how patently unbelievable it is that I—the girl with the teeny-tiny wrists and the profusion of yellow hair—do a fast, aggressive, sporty Thing. And not only that, but I do it well enough to belong to a whole group of fast, sporty girls who date the varsity football players and run all the activities-committees and the clubs and who get their nails done by professionals and graduate to places like Berkley and Cornell.

Now, though, that same crowd of voices is dialed up to deafening, because the soccer team makes the paper at least twice a week. This is a brand new thing, to walk into an art meeting or an English class to a cluster of people passing around the sports section. It’s even weirder, having someone come up to me and say that they saw me play the other day, that they were at the game and they saw me and they loved that assist I had. That they were, for better or for worse, focused on some mysterious chunk of time that I’m already starting to forget.

They act like I’ve done something exhilarating or exceptional, even though I almost unilaterally haven’t. I’m not one of the stars, not one of the All-Conference darlings. I’m in a utility position and mostly only play second-string. I only start maybe forty percent of the time and almost never play the whole game.

It doesn’t matter. The simple fact that I am part of this thing that gets featured on the morning video announcements and covered in the city papers is enough to put me on the radar.

I’ve seen this kind of rampant sports enthusiasm before. In movies. I have never actually encountered it in real life. The whole scenario is like a Very Special Episode, or something I’d include in the first draft of a novel and then later take out because it just seemed too unrealistic.

People wave to me in the halls and say congratulations, and other warm, beaming things that I don’t quite know how to respond to. The soccer part of my day feels disconnected, almost completely separate from home or school or ordinary life. Separate from the person I am when I tumble out of bed in the morning—the one who will always choose bobby pins, messy princess up-dos and green canvas sneakers and flavored lipgloss, black coffee and pixy stix for breakfast.

That girl is the one who’s living the normal, daily existence, following a specific template. Her greater routine is obvious and logical, matching up perfectly with her personality and her interests. The life she looks like she’s living.

She watches Daria and pins tiny plastic airplanes in her hair and goes to parties with boys like Brody and Wit. She says wry, acerbic things during group projects and skips class when she hasn’t done the homework. (For her final poetry assignment, she writes an Emily Dickinson parody so dark and smirking and irreverent that M actually calls her mother.*)

Brenna at the end of junior year is basically an imaginary construct—a bright cartoon version of herself, playful and whimsical and completely unrelated to reality. She is a performance I’m giving, and organized sports are not part of her general repertoire.

Conversely, soccer feels more like a story I wrote or a picture I drew—this thing that happened quietly in the pages of my notebook, where no one could see. When the off-roaders and the redneck boys high-five me, I have to resist the urge to ask how they knew. The idea of myself as part of one impressive, singular entity is confusing.

The thing is, we’re not even supposed to be the team that wins. In our city, the other high schools are the soccer powerhouses, while we’re stuck with the dubious distinction of Also-Ran. We never place in the standings, never dominate. People who are serious about soccer literally school-of-choice themselves to other districts.

But now, all the other teams are out for the season, some of them in the first round, and even people from our rival schools have started showing up to our games. We are the only ones left to cheer for.

I lose track of how many times the papers refer to us as a Cinderella team or a long shot or a dark horse, always quick to point out that we’re entering every single match as a statistical anomaly. It just becomes one more part of the overarching narrative, the underdog’s glamor, the Disneyfied script. The luck that could still run out.

So, okay. So, we won the quarter-finals game. It went to sudden death shootout, but we won. We’re moving on. […]

In 1st hour, Geekman keeps complimenting me on soccer and other things. He had a copy of the local sports section today. On the front page is a picture of our team.

We’d been standing in a line at center field, all holding hands, but when the last shootout goal went in and we knew we’d won, everyone jumped straight up and that’s when the photographer took the picture.

A line of girls in uniforms, leaping, arms raised. They’re calling us a Cinderella team. What does that even mean? When the clock strikes twelve, we’re $%&@ed?

My account of our regional successes always looks exactly like this. I’m not good at celebrating or enjoying or basking in it. In fact, it actually makes me very cynical. Also, this is not because there’s anything legitimate or concrete to be cynical about. (In fact, I think it’s really just because the human capacity for cynicism peaks in late adolescence.)

From a grown-up perspective, the whole situation feels distinctly different. The adult-me understands almost automatically that the reason people talk about it so much is because they’re just excited and keyed up, ready to get loud and enthusiastic about the possibility of something good.

But at the time, I can’t help thinking that none of it means anything and that being this excited about a game—an extracurricular activity—is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

We lost the championship game. The final score was 4 to 0. There were newspaper photographers everywhere, taking pictures. Everyone was crying except me.

The championship is a blowout. We are outmanned on every front, and it’s very clear from the first ten minutes that we’re not going to win. I don’t even have to sit down and mentally prepare myself for the eventuality of losing. I just identify the circumstances and move on.

Everyone else … is very upset.

The bus-ride home is dismal, deflated, but I don’t really know how to participate. A state-championship defeat is just not something I can get upset over, or even take very seriously, especially since I feel that we did quite well just to make it this far. Also, we’re a group of twenty-two girls between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, wearing matching warm-ups and gold-and-maroon ribbons in our hair. It’s hard to imagine that what just happened is very important in any global capacity.

Or, at all.

Also, did I tell you that my teenage-self had recently abandoned her ill-advised commitment to nihilism? Because yeah, I guess that’s not actually true.

Mercifully, my utter lack of investment is due to exhaust itself before too long. It will be short-lived. It will be in distinct opposition to almost everything about next year.


Today, I’m really interested in talking about achievement and competition and school spirit. Are you a team-person? A cooperative-activities person? Does it ever feel out of character, or do you just see it as another part of who you are?

Also, when you’re on a team, do you identify personally with the larger whole? (This is something that it took me a very, very long time to learn how to do.)

*Except for baseball, because wow, I am bad.

**M spends the whole conversation trying to talk around the fact that in the course of the parody assignment, I’d turned the poem “Because I could not stop for Death” into a playful little ditty about prostitutes. My mother just laughs and shakes her head. My mother is awesome.

Looking back on this from my grown-up place of relative maturity, I do feel kind of bad. I really spent a LOT of that writing class being outrageously difficult. Mostly because I was still resentful about all the nasty things that M did to various people during my sophomore year. Never let it be said that teenage-Brenna doesn’t know how to hold a grudge.

12 thoughts on “Cinderella

  1. I really don’t do many team things but I can relate to feeling like things that you do aren’t a big deal. I sew my own clothes and a lot of people find this to be really cool and interesting but it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me because it happens to be something I’m good at and enjoy doing. Being good at something doesn’t necessarily take any effort and I guess I consider things that take effort and that are hard as more worthy of praise.

    • Being good at something doesn’t necessarily take any effort and I guess I consider things that take effort and that are hard as more worthy of praise.

      I think this is so, so true, and also that it really was the one true sticking point for me underneath all the various specific situations I got fixated on as a teenager. I just remember thinking that I was never going to be recognized for the things I actually worked at, and spent a lot of time wondering if it was the same for other people—like if the center on the football team was really secretly good at needlepoint or something. Which was probably not true, but would have been very cinematic.

  2. It really depends on the activity for me. I dreaded group projects and sports, because I was scared of other people and I’ve never been a sports person. I did try to be a team person but mostly I wouldn’t speak about my ideas very much and I would just try to do whatever the rest of the group told me to. Though there were the rare cases where I would be outspoken when I was put in a group with people I knew or if the group I was with was focused more on talking than getting the project done in time. I was much more of a team player when it came to my theater class in high school. I enjoyed the eccentric people there and I had a lot of fun. I wasn’t great at performing because I was an anxious person with a lot of nerves, but I really enjoyed collaborating with the rest of the group and now that I’m older and starting to realize that I shouldn’t put so much stock in what other people think of me, I think I could get over the nerves. In theater, it did feel somewhat out of character at first, because in middle school and high school, I was always the quiet weird but in theater class, we were kind of all about being over the top and letting your freak flag fly proudly, but then because most of my classmates were accepting and we were having so much fun, it became part of who I was. And there were times where I would revert to my old ways, but in theater I was more of a team player. In my other classes, I would mostly be quiet and would prefer to work alone, except for maybe Language Arts. Though sadly, the fun I had in theater wouldn’t be enough to make me want to stay in school, but that’s a whole other story :D.

    • I dreaded group projects and sports, because I was scared of other people and I’ve never been a sports person

      I’m sure you already know this from reading the blog, but I am endlessly, endlessly fascinated by these ideas we have (quite often, as a species) that something terrible is going to happen if we don’t fit in with the group. Which, yes, makes SO MUCH sense from an anthropological perspective, but which doesn’t really serve us in our day-to-day lives.

      It just seems so sad and funny now to think about how terrified I was of group work for literally years, and now that I’m not anymore, I desperately want to attribute that change to my own personal cognitive abilities—like I reasoned through the problem so successfully that I talked myself out of being scared. (But I know that’s not remotely true. If the change can be attributed to anything, it might mostly just be repeated exposure to scary situations where it turned out that in the end, nothing bad happened.)

      now that I’m older and starting to realize that I shouldn’t put so much stock in what other people think of me

      It drives me nuts that we can’t just flip a switch and have this realization all at once, because I think it is so right. I understood intellectually waaaay before I understood emotionally that other people’s views of me had very little impact on the real, actual heart of me. Basically, I understood that someone thinking something about me didn’t make it true, but I still had a hard time believing it. I always just felt so flatly incapable of *deciding* to change, even when I knew what I wanted to change into or saw a problem with the way I was behaving. It made me feel discouraged, like I was making zero life-progress, when really, change was happening—but it was happening in increments too small to see with the naked eye. Even now, I think I only really recognize changes in myself after the fact, when I realize I’m behaving in a new way or dealing with a situation more easily than I would have in the past.

  3. Good to see you back, I’d missed these high school posts.

    Wow, was I not a team person in high school. For a pretty small school, we had an awful lot of sports, ranging from perennial champs to positively abysmal (a scale of ‘softball to football’, though nothing could compete with the marching band, second place nationally in ’11) So almost everyone did a sport or three? I mean, a lot of people didn’t, but sitting in a class hearing all the complaints about practices, it didn’t seem that way. Me, not so much. The most impressive thing on my college applications was ‘editor’ of a literary magazine that most years didn’t even manage to produce a magazine, but did spend a lot of money on coffee. Anything else… wasn’t really something I could imagine doing, probably from a combination of crushing apathy and extremely adolescent distaste for being forced to do anything I didn’t feel like doing. My school spirit was pretty firmly nonexistent, because I was also brimming with cynicism (I feel like I probably peaked freshman or sophomore year, because I think my cynicism has declined steadily since then, and I also own clothing other than black sweatshirts now.)

    Anyway, I did get dragged by a friend into joining the academic decathlon team senior year, which improbably made it to the state competition, and we all met that with a kind of dazed enthusiasm, because none of us had actually managed to take it seriously on any level. It was tinged with bitterness, though, because progressing past regionals meant the famous ‘go to meetings, recieve baked goods, do one day of work and you’re done’ join-up pitch actually had to be extended to two whole Saturdays of waking up at 7 AM to take tests. Got a whole pile of medals, though.

    The funny thing is that I tend to remember high school as a time of extracurricular underachieving mostly because I never take into account the amount of writing I was doing throughout that time… Most of it quantity over quality, sure, but looking back I’m shocked at the volume I was producing.

    • Oh, man, we had SO many sports—some that I didn’t even know existed until I started public school. (Like, I literally had no idea that anyone under the age of forty played golf.) Almost all of our sports teams were really bad, too, even though the school was pretty big. Our areas of note were actually music, and forensics and debate, but I only anecdotally knew people who competed in those.

      It was tinged with bitterness, though, because progressing past regionals meant the famous ‘go to meetings, recieve baked goods, do one day of work and you’re done’ join-up pitch actually had to be extended to two whole Saturdays

      Hahaha—yes! When the soccer team did well, I always knew I was supposed to be excited, but half the time all I could muster up was this resentful little complaining voice of aren’t we DONE already? Which is probably either one more example of how non-competitive I am, or else how lazy.

      I tend to remember high school as a time of extracurricular underachieving mostly because I never take into account the amount of writing I was doing

      Exactly. Oh, exactly. Even though I had this little cluster of various extracurriculars that occasionally felt like they were taking over my entire life, even if I combined them all, it wouldn’t come close to rivaling the amount of time and effort I put into writing. (I think some people work better with an audience, but that’s always been the opposite of my own experience. I’ve mostly only ever been good at things when no one was watching, and in that way, writing was perfect because no one could see me doing it, so I could work really, really hard and not feel stupid or foolish if the end result wasn’t any good.)

  4. ‘They’re calling us a Cinderella team. What does that even mean? When the clock strikes twelve, we’re $%&@ed?’ – hahaha, love this SO much.

    I didn’t have school spirit, per se. I was a cheerleader for three years, so yeah, I knew all the school songs and went to all the games – well, football, basketball, and a few others, because that was part of the requirement. I liked my school and teachers and friends and all that, but I only joined the cheerleading squad because in middle school, I was completely anonymous. And freshman year, I was anonymous – unless you count the people who knew me as my tennis-God brother’s little sister. And I hated that, even though anonymity fit my introverted, socially anxious self perfectly. But everyone knew the cheerleaders, and at my school, everyone liked them, too. I liked to dance, so when try-outs came along, I took a chance and made the squad. I’m a tiny person, so I instantly became the one they threw in the air, so it didn’t take long for everyone in school to know me, which sounds so pathetic, but it gave me confidence that I didn’t have before. And though I was still introverted and socially awkward, I was definitely the kind of person who liked to rocket into air so people didn’t have a choice but to look at me.

    I loved my squad – we weren’t competitive, just had fun. And we’re still good friends, 13 years later. My closest friend is one of the girls who used to throw me up and hope I didn’t kick her teeth in when I came down. She was my maid of honor, and I was her matron of honor, twice :D

    • First, I’d just like to take a moment to reiterate what you’ve probably already surmised from my adolescent Tarantino-fixation: even though I didn’t look it, I was, in all casual circumstances, quite profane. (In the course of my soccer-playing career, the only times I’ve ever even been threatened with a yellow card have been for employing language that was … well, shocking.)

      I was anonymous […] And I hated that, even though anonymity fit my introverted, socially anxious self perfectly.

      This is so interesting, and I really think kind of universal. I remember so many times wanting to be more visible (although usually only to a few specific people), and then when I actually wound up drawing attention, it was never for the thing I wanted to be noticed for, and it never felt the way I’d imagined in my head. Basically, I spent a lot of my teenage years craving something totally intangible that I couldn’t even put a label on. (Grown-up me has since identified the entire era of longing as simply a hunger for meaningful relationships + meaningful work—problem solved! But at the time, I didn’t even know if what I was wishing for actually existed.)

  5. Through out my adolescence I was pressured into participating into a variety of sports simply because my older sister was very athletic. As a kid I never understood the importance of sports and competition and when I started getting involved in these activities I still couldn’t understand it. Not to mind the fact that unlike you, I was awful at anything that required coordination and a ball. I stuck through everything I tried until the end of the season and never looked back.
    It wasn’t until I discovered my love for running that I got enthusiastic about a sport. Cross country was the best thing for me, as it’s solitary and requires very little reliance on a team.
    Outside the realm of sports I’m very involved in my art, and won several awards every year, an apparently abnormal amount, yet I never felt proud or excited as I should have, and this goes the same with CC awards. It was just something I did, and I was just given this medal or certificate that congratulated me for partaking in something I love and am particularly good at. It always made me feel guilty, like I’m not appreciative of something many people would die to achieve.

    • I was pressured into participating into a variety of sports simply because my older sister was very athletic

      I feel like I’ve actually seen this happen quite a few times, and one thing I’m really glad about even now is, I never felt like there was any pressure to excel at anything in particular. My mom did try to teach me to play basketball and softball, but once it became obvious I wasn’t going to fall in love (or even be good), she didn’t push me or act disappointed, even though those were her sports from when she was a kid.

      (Also, I will say that I was totally, totally awful at all sports for years. Until one day, I wasn’t. Now I’ve just accepted that I have the slowest learning curve ever, but at the time, it was very defeating to be the worst at something for *years.* For awhile, I actually did think really seriously about doing CC instead, because even after I got good at soccer, a large part of what I was actually good at was still just the running.)

      It was just something I did, and I was just given this medal or certificate that congratulated me for partaking in something I love and am particularly good at.

      Oh, YES! I know exactly what you mean about feeling guilty for doing well in something that doesn’t feel like work. I remember being so convinced that I didn’t really deserve it when I got a certificate or a prize, because I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn it, or because the particular pursuit came more easily to me than it did to other people who were trying for the same thing, or lots of other reasons that felt true and valid, but ultimately weren’t really helpful. (Now I just try to always work really, really hard at the things I’m already good at, and that way, even if it doesn’t *feel* like work, it still at least feels like I’m challenging myself.)

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