Previously by Molly Knefel: Growing Up Gender Nonconforming
Every girl at sports camp, it seemed to me, was there for cheerleading. As a second-grader (well, summer-before-third-grader), I harbored a Daria-like disdain for the cheerleaders, fueled by their much greater hatred of me. We stayed in college dorms, two rooms with two girls each, adjoined by a bathroom. I got placed with three girls who were already best friends. In my memory, they all look alike — and like our counselor, who was also a cheerleader and didn’t particularly care for me. The girls liked to race into one of the rooms together and lock the door behind them, stranding me in the other.
Any kid in my position would have felt like an outsider, but I already always felt like an outsider. I was a girl, but didn’t feel like one (I’m cisgender, by the way). I felt most comfortable in boys’ clothes, with short hair — at that time, the early ’90s, I wore giant No Fear shirts that went down to my knee-length boy shorts. Maybe my social life would have been okay, despite the different gender expression, if I also hadn’t been so, so weird. I don’t think I was in my “I exclusively watch Gene Kelly tap-dancing movies” phase by then, but I only a year or two away from it, and I may have been in my “I exclusively watch Great Depression-era comedies” phase. I had no ability to understand why my peers were into Disney movies. Regretfully, I realize now, I was a bit of a hater.
When you are a girl who wears boys’ clothes, people assume you must be a tomboy who likes normal boy stuff, as opposed to a child who likes very few “normal things.” And when you’re a kid, “normal boy stuff” means sports. But sports didn’t come naturally to me either. I was small and slow and I cried easily and my skin reacted to the sun like it was poison. I got so sunburned at sports camp that my neck turned bubbly and I had to take pill, none of which improved my social standing.
Free time at camp was the worst time. Structured activities provided the illusion of being included — everyone taking turns, everyone participating, regardless of who was friends with whom. But free time was spent in a vast expanse of open space where kids had full run of the Field House. During the school year, if I had no one to play with, I could take cover on the monkey bars where no team was needed. I could wander the perimeters of the playground at school. But under the fluorescent lights of that endless gym, home of the week-long sports camp, there was nowhere for me to hide.
As sports camp, we were separated by both gender and age. My older brother John was there with me, but we only saw each other in passing or at a distance in the cafeteria. Somehow I was able to communicate to him that I needed help. I don’t remember how many free time sessions I passed on my own — the week of sports camp always felt like the longest of my young life — but eventually John invited me to come with him and the other fifth-grade boys, who always went to the wrestling room to play dodgeball during free time.
On Field Day this year, I watched my students pick teams for Capture the Flag. It was second- through fifth- graders all mixed up, and of course the most athletic fifth-grade boys got picked first. But after they were chosen, neither gender nor age seemed to reign supreme in the way I remember when I was young.
It’s one of many small but significant shifts I’ve noticed amongst the young people I teach. I work at an elementary school and a middle school, and at both we combine kids of different ages and very rarely segregate by gender. I can’t remember the last time I heard “you throw/run/catch like a girl” from a kid’s mouth — while I’m sure kids still say it, and I’m even more sure that some adults still say it to kids, it’s not ubiquitous the way it was when I was young.
We don’t play dodgeball anymore at my schools — we play a similar game, but you have to hit your target below the knees, and if you get them in the face, you’re out. This attempt to discourage both humiliation and physical injury might be counted by some as further evidence that Kids Are Too Coddled Nowadays.
Sports are really fun, I often find myself thinking, to my surprise, as I play with my kids. They’re especially fun when everyone is kind to each other.
When we play Capture the Flag, the all-stars on each team emerge — the showy kids who stand as close to the border as possible and taunt you to come catch them, the fast kids who release teammate after teammate from “jail,” and the natural leaders who everyone counts on to be the ones to claim the flag.
If you don’t remember playing Capture the Flag, players in jail can only be freed when their teammates run to the other side and grab them without getting caught. In one recent game, a third-grade boy kept going for the flag, but he was a slow runner and always got captured. A second-grade girl — the boy’s sister– walked unnoticed into enemy territory and retrieved her brother.
When the other team noticed he was out of jail, they screamed, “What are you doing out? No one got you!” And the boy said, “My sister got me.” I backed him up, because no one else had seen her.
The wrestling room at the sports camp my brother and I attended as kids was padded on all sides and felt like it was underwater, but with sweat instead of water. What seemed like hundreds of huge boys were on one side of a line, and the extremely athletic camp counselors were on the other. The dodgeballs in play were the kind of dense foam that you couldn’t really make a dent in when you squeezed. My brother John said they were a downgrade from the slightly deflated volleyballs they used in earlier, less gentle times (Kids Are Too Coddled These Days to Take a Hard Leather Carcass to the Face).
Although I felt self-conscious being the only eight-year-old girl in a room full of pre-teen boys and adult men, either no one noticed or cared enough to comment on my presence. Nor did they hold back for my sake. The balls flew past my head like speeding bullets, and they were everywhere. The men did not take it easy on the boys — they shot balls at the kids’ faces with a purpose and strength that would most certainly be fireable offenses by today’s camp standards.
The kids were having a fantastic time — they outnumbered the counselors, and they weren’t slowed down by the relentless onslaught of projectiles. I always stood near the perimeter, occasionally lobbing a ball across the line, just trying to survive.
One day, I got hit right square in the face. I was too stunned to move, but I felt like I was unconscious on my feet. Someone — maybe John — ushered me to the sideline, where I could recover as the game raged on. I remember wondering if the grown person who hit me had aimed at me, or if I was just collateral damage.
Playing with my students now, I feel like a character in a novel who gets the opportunity to avenge their past. I’m assumed to be good just by way of being a grown-up. When we do pick teams — something we do infrequently, because of the potential for hurt feelings — I get picked early. When I’m terrible at a sport (volleyball), I laugh at my mistakes and the kids laugh with me. When I don’t know the rules to playground basketball, the kids very patiently explain them: “Miss, you have to check the ball.”
Once, as I was playing defense, I stole the ball from a kid and made a basket. The kid’s teammate said, “I can’t believe you lost the ball to a… ” My childhood experiences had me so convinced he was going to say “girl” that when he said “teacher,” it was music to my ears.
Not that everything is perfect. This summer I bought basketball shoes, and at the sporting goods store — a major chain, by the way — I had to ask where the women’s basketball shoes were. The man I asked looked stricken. “Women’s…basketball…shoes,” he said, clearly thinking hard. “We don’t have those. You’ll have to go with men’s.”
As it turned out, the men’s shoes didn’t come in my size. So I looked in the kids’ section and was able to get some awesome black high-tops with neon green and blue accents, which I’ve been rocking proudly all summer. One of the kids saw them and exclaimed, “Miss, I have those same sneakers in black and red!”
My students have their own sports camp this summer — a day camp where they get food, field trips, academic lesson plans, and lots of time to play. There are plenty of other activities available besides sports, and both boys and girls moonlight in the dance classes when their favorite genre of dance is being taught. One day, I was put in charge of coaching a five-kid team in a basketball tournament. The three boys were passing to each other much more frequently than they passed to the two girls, and the girls were wide open because none of the boys on the other team thought to guard them.
Since I don’t know how to coach basketball, I stuck with what I know — I told the boys to pass to everyone, not just for the sake of good teamwork, but also because the girls were WIDE OPEN. The girls nodded emphatically. It’s annoying, I told them, that sometimes the boys don’t see you. But if we can get your teammates to pass to you, you can use your invisibility as a superpower.
When I told my brother John about it, he asked me how extensively I had channeled Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights.” Then he reminded me about the invisibility of the little second-grader who had freed her brother during Capture the Flag. She freed him several more times after her first victory. We lost many of our best players to jail, but the girl always freed her brother before helping anyone else.
We rotated around the field– at some point, a fifth-grader who had been guarding the flag asked me to do it. “It’s boring,” he told me after I agreed to take over for him. I was standing near our flag, feeling bored indeed, when everyone on my team started cheering. “We got it! We got their flag!” people were screaming.
“Who? Who got it?” the other team screamed back.
And there she was, the little second grade girl, standing victorious with the opposing team’s flag in her hand. No one had noticed her. She and her brother had tag-teamed — he ran in and created a diversion, and while all the kids noticed and ran for him, she walked right up and took it. No one had even tried to stop her.
The two of them reveled in their moment of glory, hugging each other and high-fiving. The other kids were kind and congratulatory, but I knew they were as surprised as she by who turned out to be the hero of the game.
John and I remember sports camp dodgeball both fondly and viscerally. That getting beamed in the face by a college quarterback seemed preferable to everything else I experienced there with the cheerleaders shows what a hard time it was for me. Incredibly, I don’t know how I would have made it through without those death-defying dodgeball sessions with my brother.
In between attending sports camp as a kid and becoming an adult in my late twenties, there were many years when I tried to be more “normal,” especially in terms of gender and what was expected of me. Only in the last few years have I let myself fully embrace my lifelong desire to wear boys’ clothes. This summer, I’ve got short hair and long shorts, and now I’ve got these little boys’ basketball shoes. I’m still weird as hell. And I teach a lot of kids who are weird, too. While I can’t know exactly what it’s like for each of them, I know there are educators in their lives who do everything they can to create a safe and supportive environment where they can be themselves.
“We’re all weird,” a teacher I admire once told her students after they made a classmate cry. “Don’t be making fun people for being different, because we’re all weirdos, and that’s a good thing. That’s what makes us interesting.” Whereas when I was a kid, the tactic was usually to deny our differences entirely — we were told “You’re perfectly normal!” by well-meaning adults, instead of “You are you, and no one is really normal.”
All love and respect to cheerleader girls and bloodthirsty dodgeball boys — those just can’t be the only two choices. From where I stand today, I see boys who still need to be reminded to pass the ball to the girls. But I also see little kids and big kids and boys and girls alike playing together like I never saw when I was a kid. I see fewer limits now on who kids can be. And then, sometimes, the littlest girl will surprise everybody and be the one to capture the flag.