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.
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.