The making and unmaking of a bully
Most days I am able to live in the moment and revel in the amazingness that is my life.
Some days my mind wanders, and I play the mentally crippling What If game.
What if I’d been adopted by another family?
What if I’d lived in the same place all my life?
What if I never played sports?
What if I never blew out my knee?
What if I’d never been a bully?
What if I’d never experienced a thing called grace?
But I was adopted by my family, and moved a lot, and played all kinds of sports, and spent a year rehabbing a bum knee, and became a bully, and – thankfully – found redemption and grace and a second chance.
What If days are usually sparked by a comments like “That kid’s a bully. What horrible parents,” “That person will never change.” If the comments are coming from friends, I chime in that I once was a bully, that my parents are great, and I did change. They tend to respond with nervous chuckles and disbelief. Which is nice because my life is so far removed from that dark season that they can’t see me there. But I was there, and I ponder how I got there to avoid ending up there again.
My early years in Southern California were filled with typical childhood exploits. I learned to ride a bike, a motorcycle, a skateboard. I spent time in private and public schools.
Then we moved to central Colorado a few months into the fifth grade. I left the high desert for high altitude. I knew nothing of Colorado before I arrived but quickly learned it was cold and harsh. I also knew nothing of the economic crisis it was suffering at the hands of California – but I soon learned that the hard way.
I’m not really sure how many times I got beat up during recess that first week. I know I spent a lot of time on my back in snow drifts with various fifth graders taking turns hitting me. When I’d get back to class, the teacher would ask what happened. I explained my red face away by the cold and being hit with a dodge ball. I didn’t know Colorado, but I knew no good came from snitching.
I took my licks without retaliation or tattling. Eventually, they stopped, and I got to the business of making friends. I had three shallow pools to draw from: school, church and neighbors. I made one friend that year that I kept all five years in the Mile High state. We didn’t really click, but we were both different. I was Californian; Kathy was Hispanic. Minorities sticking together.
The one good thing all those early poundings did was make me fast. Running in thin air and deep snow helped me adapt to the climate. In sixth grade, the middle school basketball coach came to watch us practice. Despite being all of 4-foot-10, he tapped me to be a member of next year’s seventh-grade squad. At our school wrestlers and basketball players were kings and queens. I was suddenly at the cool kid’s table.
Coach was many things. He was my science teacher. He was my first hard crush. He was a Bobby Knight wannabe. He was married. If he had just been one of those things, things might have been different. But he was all of those, and all of them would play a role in my choosing the wrong path.
Granted I will never understand what goes on inside a man’s head, but I’m pretty sure Coach knew that I – along with pretty much every other girl in the school – had a crush on him. And I will never understand what goes on inside my own head when a good looking man is around. In science class, I found myself saying exceptionally stupid things and acting odd. This brought the attention of a trio of girls who would become major thorns in my side.
One day in class, we were studying genetics. Coach gave us blank pieces of paper and told us to draw our family trees. I made a straight line, wrote me at the top, and turned it in.
Coach looked at it and then me.
“Orendor, what is this?” he asked.
“Coach, I’m adopted,” I said and turned my empty palms up. “That’s all I got.”
All the kids laughed, my drug of choice. All but The Trio.
“Fill it in with your family,” he said, tossing the paper back at me.
I was feeling pretty good about my life all things considered. I had friends on the basketball team. Kathy continued to be my closest ally. We rode the same bus for an hour each day, five days a week. She shared stories about her family traditions, her dreams. I’d tell her mine. We were each other’s biggest fans.
Then it all went sideways. In a hurry.
A promise made
One day while waiting for the bus, chaos erupted. I can’t remember how it started. I try not to remember this day. Because when the crowd parted, Kathy was being held by several kids and hit by several others. A rage I had never felt filled me, and I charged at the group. I was snagged from behind and pulled back before I could reach them. I struggled with everything in me to get away, but I was held fast. Just as quickly, it was over. They let us both go and left as the busses rounded the corner to pick us up. I went to my friend. Neither of us said anything. The bus ride home was a quiet one. And although I didn’t say it out loud, I made a promise to myself that that was the last time I was held back.
Instead of waiting for a fight, I started taking the fight to others. This was also the year Coach became My Coach. His coaching style would develop serious fundamental skills and anger-management issues. I didn’t care because I needed Coach to like me. I needed him to see potential so I could stay on the team, earn a letter and remain at the cool kid’s table. Basketball players were gods, and no one was stupid enough to pick on gods.
My first indication that Coach’s style was different and potentially hazardous to my health came during a basic drill. In rows, we were to keep an eye on the ball while zig-zag, slid-stepping to midcourt and then break for the basket. I made the key error of turning my back to Coach – and therefore the ball – when I broke at midcourt. A well-placed toss on his part had the basketball connecting with my head, nearly causing me to tumble to the ground.
“Orendor! Never lose sight of the ball.”
I was embarrassed and angry and certain I would never lose sight of the ball again. I redoubled my efforts. My offensive contributions were limited to assists and occasional free throws. Coach determined at 4-foot-11 I best served my team on the perimeter. However, I shined on the defensive end. I had quick hands and quick feet and was not afraid to mix it up with girls of any height. The more I dove for loose balls. The more I semi-tackled girls to prevent breakaway lays. The more “atta girls” I got from Coach. Finally, I had found a sanctioned way to expel my rage.
Off the court, life – as it does in junior high – was becoming more complicated. The Trio and I were constantly bickering with each other one week and kind of friendly the next. Usually it was over some silly stuff – stuff I can’t remember. But one day, one day, is forever burned into my brain. Our P.E. class was playing badminton that semester, and Kathy and I were getting our racquets from the supply area when The Trio walked in. I can’t recall what I said, but I’m sure it was stupid and insensitive. But I remember The Trio leader’s words, like it was yesterday.
“No wonder they gave you up,” she said so matter-of-factly.
“What,” I asked, even though I had heard and just hoped I’d heard wrong.
“No wonder they gave you up,” she said again.
She then switched gears and decided to bad mouth my biological mother. She called her a whore, a prostitute and my brain went numb. My parents had said nothing but great things about my biological mom. I hadn’t even entertained the idea she was anything other than a scared young girl trying to figure out the best thing for both of us. This was too much for me to absorb.
I remember squeezing the grip of the racquet and raising it above my head. I had no words. I had a heart full of anger, and a hand full of weapon. Just then Coach’s wife – who was also my P.E. teacher – walked in to the storage area.
“Orendor! What are you doing?”
I couldn’t put the racquet down. I couldn’t answer. I could only stare at the girl. Mrs. Coach took my hand and the racquet. She asked me to explain. I couldn’t. I don’t tattle. Plus, the words hurt so deep. I didn’t want to cry and show weakness. So I went with the only thing I could.
“They started it.”
Mrs. Coach, who always seemed at odds with every basketball player, sent me to the showers and then on to the vice principal’s office. Kathy came with me. She wasn’t told to, but that’s what friends do. I sat in the waiting area with an emptiness starting to grow.
The emptiness meshed well with my anger and was becoming a silent fury. I was afraid I would explode, so I did something I’d never done before. I told an adult what really happened. I told him what they said, how I wanted to hit them – but I didn’t; how I didn’t answer my teacher because I didn’t want to yell at her. I glanced at the clock and knew the final bell was about to ring and I couldn’t afford to miss the bus. Because that would make my parents ask questions, and questions are best avoided.
I threw myself on his mercy. Promised to never raise a racquet again in vain. Promised to be good. He let me go, and even better as I was leaving I heard him ask the receptionist to bring The Trio to his office. I was extremely satisfied with myself. But I should have known that breaking the code came with consequences. But they would come much later. They would come in waves and leave me floundering with no sense of direction.
Stepping up my game
Freshman year. It was actually something I was excited for. I knew before the year started that not only would I be playing on but also starting for the freshman and junior varsity basketball teams. And I was finally 5-feet tall. Coach listed me as 5-2 on the roster. I asked him why, and he told me I played bigger than I was. Which just made me want to play even harder. I had yet to tell Coach that at the end of last season my right knee would occasionally buckle for no apparent reason.
Midway through the season, I was in constant pain. It hurt to run. It hurt to sit. It hurt to sleep. Coach noticed I was slower and pondered pulling me from JV action. I told him, that I’d be OK. He didn’t pull me, and instead I started getting whirlpools of ice before and after games and practices. It helped. I continued to average more fouls than points, dive into the bleachers for loose balls and take down would-be fast-breakers. This new sense of power fueled by the empty anger was intoxicating. What I didn’t realize was the difference between fear and respect. And I didn’t really care at that point.
While life on the court was going well. Life in the halls was a different matter. The Trio had become a quartet over the summer. Making matters a bit more awkward was my former boyfriend – which is a pretty strong word for a guy I went to two dances with and held hands with on the bus for a month – was interested in one of the four. It wasn’t that I cared he wanted to go out with her; it was how The Quartet tried to use him.
He became a pawn in a twisted game that I didn’t want to play. I was powerless the last time a friend was hurt, but not this time. I had held my tongue. I had had my fists held. I had checked my racquet. For the first time that I recall, I was ready, willing and inches from delivering a pounding of my own.
Fittingly for high school girls, the confrontation took place during the winter dance. I arrived late, not really wanting to go at all, and found him sitting alone. He told me his date had been in the bathroom the whole time with her friends. He wasn’t sure if she’d ever come out. I excused myself and went to find her, righteous indignation rising with each step. They were all four in the bathroom. All four much taller than me. All four staring at me. Without thinking, I grabbed the girl, pushed against the wall at a downward angle that made her slouch to my eye level. The Trio froze behind me. In a slow and steady voice I explained how she was going to go out there and dance with him and make him smile or we were going to be back in the bathroom and only I would walk out. I held her gaze and saw fear in her eyes.
If I’d been thinking at all, I may have wondered if that was the same fear that was in my eyes as a fifth grader. But I wasn’t thinking that. I wasn’t thinking. I was keeping my eye on the ball. I was achieving my objective. I was enjoying the rush.
The Quartet left the bathroom. I followed out and was pleased to see her ask him to dance. I had used extreme measures but it was for a good cause. Coach had taught me that was OK.
It turns out we had a pretty good basketball team that year. We were invited to play in a tournament in Colorado Springs, a three-hour bus ride away. The school that hosted the event had an indoor pool. Our team felt like the poor kid down the street. Not only were these schools bigger, their teams were bigger. Much bigger. I didn’t know girls could be that big.
In the first half, we were getting pounded. I struggled on offense, turning the ball over against the longer-reaching team. Each time, hustling down the court trying to knock the ball away or take the shooter down. I was frustrated, angry and feeling like a failure when we went into the locker room at halftime.
The room was quiet until Coach came in. I sat on a back bench with ice packed on my knee. Coach was ranting about our poor play, lack of execution. I remember thinking, “Come on, man, they’re huge. I’m exhausted. It’s killing me to move.” Which is right when coach looked at me, and said, “Orendor is the only one hustling.” I knew this wasn’t true, but I also think secretly Coach knew I was nearly empty, and he was trying to get me one last tank full. And it worked, because I couldn’t disappoint Coach.
That second half I played like a person possessed. I was so intent on stepping up my game that I found myself in the middle of the key going for a rebound against giants. One of those giants clipped me at the base of my skull with an elbow. I felt my whole body tingle and then drop. I don’t remember anything else until I opened my eyes and my teammates were calling my name. They helped me off the floor and to the bench. Coach looked at me down the bench, and I nodded. He gave me a thumbs up. Less than five minutes later, I was back in the game. We lost. My head hurt. My stomach hurt. My knee refused to bend.
It was not my first trip to the doctor. He had set my hand and elbow in casts. He had stitched and bandaged me up. He was not surprised to see me. I wasn’t too nervous to see him. In the past, life went on pretty much as normal – even with casts I had been permitted to continue practice. Not this time. He was afraid any more activity would damage my knee beyond repair. It had to be immobile for months. No extra-curricular sports. No P.E. No sanctioned outlet for venting. My life was over. I was 14 years old.
The remainder of the school year was a series of missteps and heart ache. When I told Coach that I couldn’t run track, he asked me if they doctor hadn’t taken me out, would I still run? I was bewildered. How could he doubt me? I had given him every ounce of my being. Then I was angry at myself for having wanted to please him so badly.
Life in the hallways was a series of stares, shoves and locker slams as The Quartet and I tried to avoid each other at every turn. I was so tired, some days the only thing that fueled me was my empty anger. As I prepared for a long summer with nothing to do but hobble about, my parents told me we were moving – not back to California – but further east to Missouri. A new school, new town, new state, seemed like a shot for improvement.
What I didn’t know is that I wasn’t even halfway down my spiral.
In a toxic state
The one good thing about moving to Missouri was I wasn’t alone. We moved to my dad’s home town, so I had built-in friends: cousins. I didn’t get beat up once. Kids were actually pretty nice. Without extra-curricular sports, I felt disconnected from my classmates. I was frustrated and in constant physical pain. A toxic combination. I kept up outward appearances that everything was fine because going against the norm draws questions, and questions are best avoided.
I was finally able to get rid of the knee brace, but still prohibited from participating in sports or P.E. My pools for drawing friends were now classmates and church. And in this town, there was a lot of overlap in those ponds.
The church youth group I attended was pretty much like every other youth group I’d ever been a part of in the past. We sang songs, memorized bible verses, did character studies of bible heroes. It was nice. But somewhere between the 5-year-old me, who truly believed the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” and the 15-year-old me, there had been a major disconnect between my heart, mind and soul. I still believed in God, but he was distant and uncaring. I still believed in Jesus, but he was busy helping the poor in some foreign country.
There was a strange battle brewing in my life. There was the part of me that was so tired and frustrated that it longed for someone to get in my face and shake the emptiness out of me. There was a part of me so angry and empty that it was waiting for someone to get in my face so it could lash out and make someone feel just as empty, if not more so. The latter part turned out to be stronger.
It didn’t take long for me to find the object of my aggression. She did nothing to me. She was a quiet, nice kid in my youth group. One day after she’d gone home, a few of us were left behind. Our Group Leader told us that we needed to be extra kind to her, that she was having a hard time – her parents were going through a divorce – and it was the right thing to do.
Everyone nodded and agreed with him. I was not in agreement. I was having a rough time and no one was told to treat me special. I knew other kids who had gone through divorce, I wasn’t asked to treat them differently. So much for all being equal under God.
I checked out of everything. I did the minimum amount of work to avoid my parents being notified by the school. I skipped out of youth group. My parents would drop me off in the front of the church. I’d wave goodbye and head for the door. When I saw them drive away, I’d make a beeline for the woods and creek behind the building. I’d have amazing adventures, sometimes even convincing some of the other youth group kids to join me, but never her.
No, for her, I staged a strategic emotional assault that would bring her to her knees. I had learned that physically hitting someone left marks, which netted questions, which were best avoided. If our Group Leader thought she was having a rough time, I’d make sure she was. Some days I’d follow her home and not say a single word. Other days, I’d follow her home and use ever curse word I’d learned.
She started walking home with a friend. I didn’t change my pattern. She told our Group Leader. He sat me down and explained how my actions were wrong and how I should be acting. Never once did he ask me why I was acting out or how I was feeling. To be honest, I don’t know that I would have told him, but the fact that he didn’t even try made me even angrier. I left her alone for a day. She told him again. He sat me down again, and said next time he would have a meeting between my parents and me in his office.
By now I had crossed over so many lines, I didn’t know which way was which. The emptiness and the anger were overwhelming. I continued to taunt and harass not because it brought me joy but because it was the only thing I seemed capable of anymore. The tired and frustrated part of me was exerting itself, and just wanted it to all be over. I had no idea how to make it stop. Well, I had ideas, but I had no idea that wouldn’t send me straight to hell, according to my Group Leader.
It all came crashing down on my head one night a few months into my junior year. I was with a friend at a shop when all of a sudden my parents showed up. The looks on their faces told me everything I needed to know. She had told our Group Leader about my last verbal barrage. He had skipped over the meeting in his office and gone straight to my parents. Who were now hauling me to the car. I can still hear them saying, “We’re so disappointed in you.” I’d finally hit the bottom of my spiral. The secret was out. I wasn’t that good kid. I was a bully. I wasn’t kind and sweet. I was empty and angry. I was in for a major punishment, and for the first time in years, I felt relieved. I was still angry. I was still frustrated. But my world had stopped spinning.
In a matter of weeks, my parents sold our house in Missouri, moved us to Northern California and placed me in a small private school where I was given specific instructions to get good grades and behave. Two things I was seriously out of practice doing.
No place to hide
I was not excited to start my third high school in three years. I was somewhat excited to be back in California. I was nowhere near excited to be in such a small school. My previous high schools had hundreds of students, making it easy for me to fly under the radar. My new school didn’t even have a hundred students with all four classes combined. There was no place to hide.
The new year also saw the end to my physical activity probation. I figured the fastest and easiest way to assure good grades and improved behavior was to join the basketball team. The squad had already begun preparing for the season. I met with the coach to see if I could join late. Coach K was the tallest and nicest man I’d ever met. He told me it was fine, all I needed was a physical release form. My heart sank. He might as well asked me to grow to be 5-2. But I had to try.
If I couldn’t convince the doctor to sign the form, I had no idea how I would survive high school. Sports had provided so many of my coping mechanisms in the past. I was sure that it would see me through to graduation. The doctor did all the standard workups and then fixated on my knees, especially the right one. He read previous doctor notes. He grabbed and flexed my leg and manipulated my knee cap. I about came unglued. I winced and tried to pull my leg away.
“That hurts,” he said more as a statement than question.
I could feel the tears brimming and knew if one dropped I was done. “A little.”
He shook his head.
“So, I can play,” I said more as a question than a statement.
“You have the oldest knees I’ve ever seen on a high school girl.”
“So, I can play.”
He shook his head. I walked out with the signed papers.
For the first time in a long time, I had hope. I knew that I could survive the next year and a half. It was going to hurt like a mother, but I’d graduate, and if I was lucky, maybe even have some fun along the way.
Attending a small private school was like going to youth group every day. My classes included the standard reading, writing and arithmetic, along with bible. Unlike my previous youth groups, this class featured kids from numerous denominations – Catholics and Protestants, alike. This class proved entertaining as I heard first-hand from Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and more, just what it was they believed. But more than that, I met people my age who truly believed what they were saying and acted according to those guidelines. They were willing to talk with me, listen to me, and try to understand me. I was overwhelmed by their kindness and generosity.
The attitude continued onto the basketball court, which was a major paradigm shift for me. I thought I was going to die those first few days of practice, and not because of my knee. I was seriously out of condition. As I tried to find my feet and catch my breath, I constantly apologized to Coach K for my poor performance. He just smiled and said not to worry that I’d catch up.
Not only was I slow, but my ball-handling skills had atrophied. I dribbled off my foot, bounce passed behind cutters and lost sight of the ball. I would lower my head after every miscue, waiting to be yelled at, bracing myself for a jarring blow, but neither ever came.
“It’s OK. Try again.”
Who was this man?
Slowly my skills and stamina returned and my grades went up and life felt, by all accounts, normal. My life was massively structured: school, sports, home. My parents asked questions all the time. It annoyed me endlessly, but it helped me find my footing. My friends – I had more than one now – took a genuine interest in my well-being. There was no Trio or Quartet for me to battle. I had somehow found the perfect oasis, well, it was high school, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was what I needed. The anger lessened, the frustration ebbed, and sports became fun again.
The best thing about being a small private school is playing in a small private league. After years of being a munchkin in the land of giants, I finally found myself in the company of average-sized people. And with two exceptions – an all-Samoan squad and a South Bay Area team – the teams in our league played a very passive game. We dominated that first year, going undefeated in league. I’d like to say because of my awesome skills, but my contributions were assists and steals. My teammates consistently put the ball in the net. Winning is good for a weary soul.
God and Jesus and I were back on speaking terms. I was finding my own path through faith. I was learning accountability and responsibility for my own decisions, to control my feelings and not be controlled by them. I no longer felt frustrated or angry or empty. By the end of my junior year, I was feeling pretty good about myself, my life. I felt it was a good time to let the real me out. In order to “be good and behave,” I had avoided sarcasm as much as possible. My sharp-witted tongue had proven capable of making people laugh and cry. I thought I could control it. I was 16-years-old.
Two steps back
If I’d really been paying attention to all those lessons during bible class, I would have realized that my senior year was going to be a major test of everything I’d learned the past year. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and I’m a horrible test taker.
The year started off well. I was more boisterous in class and garnering laughs. It felt great. Basketball season was on the horizon. We had most of the players returning from our championship team, plus some good looking freshmen. I felt great. And then I didn’t.
As practice started, I recalled back to when I was a freshman. I remembered the hazing by the seniors. It was a time-honored tradition, they said. You want to be part of the team, they said. What was one more pink belly after every other beat down?
As a senior myself, I didn’t want to beat any freshmen, but I liked the idea of tradition, so why not give it a go. What I should have realized was what is tradition at a major public school in the middle of America does not mean it’s tradition at a small private school in Northern California. I should have, but I didn’t.
It didn’t dawn on me until I saw the look in the freshman’s eyes as I was about to render her hazing. I stopped myself. Instead, I slapped the stall door. As the season went on, things got worse. We lost games. I played horribly. We lost players, some to injury, some to grades, and one – according to sources – because we weren’t nice enough to her. The frustration, the anger, the empty were knocking on my door. And I let them back in.
Nothing much changed off the court. My grades stayed where they were. I wasn’t picking on any one person. But on the court, on the court, things were changing. As nice as Coach K was, and as much as I knew he wouldn’t sanction my behavior, I also knew the rules, and I knew what I could and could not get away with on the hardwood. It may have been a Christian league, but it operated under secular rules and those rules provided me a structure which I could vent my frustration.
What I didn’t expect was Coach K’s response.
During the end-of-season tournament, we were short-handed and losing to our rivals. There was a loose ball and I went for it. I had it wrapped up, when I felt a player behind me. She wrapped her arms around me and attempted to tie up the ball. My mind flooded with images of being held back and being pinned down. Anger swelled inside as I cocked my right elbow up and began to swing at her head. Thankfully, at the same time, the referee whistled for a foul, she let go and ducked away. The momentum of my swing carried me around to face her. I mumbled curses at her and her family.
I turned back towards the bench, expecting to see Coach K smiling and giving me a thumbs up for my tenacity. Instead he was subbing me out. I caught glimpses of my parent’s faces in the crowd. They were not pleased. I took a seat on the bench. It was way too easy back to slip into bad habits, and a bajillion times harder to stay on the good side. Coach K eventually put me back in the game. We lost, and as much as that bothered me, I was more upset with myself. We went on to win the consolation championship, and I figured our season was done.
Somehow Coach K wrangled us an invitation to a postseason tournament with slightly bigger private schools. Watching them warm up, it was obvious this was a mismatch. I was having ninth-grade flashbacks of knock-out blows and concussions. During introductions, one of their guards was introduced with the nickname, Animal. I decided my mission was to make her life miserable. I failed. She was taller, faster and just plain better than me. At halftime, I was hitting lockers, frustrated to the max. I was screaming all sorts of horrible in my head. The second half was more of the same, but worse. I made a poor pass that Animal intercepted. She took off for a fast-break layup. Instantly in my head, I was back in Colorado and Coach was screaming: “Orendor! Don’t ever give up an easy basket. Put her on the line.”
I ran full bore. There was no attempt to get the ball, no regard for health or safety. I caught her from behind before she could go up, and slammed her, the ball and myself into the padded wall behind the backboard. If I did that today, I’d be ejected and probably suspended. But back then, it was a two-shot foul. I don’t remember if she made them. I was on the bench with my head down, contemplating my life and wondering why Coach K refused to give me “Atta girls” for stopping easy buckets. I knew the answer, and questioned whether I’d ever be able to do anything other than fight.
I had failed my basketball test. It was a major step backward after the progress of my junior year. Even I was disappointed in myself. It seemed like no matter how good I wanted to be I found myself doing the opposite. A guy Paul wrote about my problem, and thankfully gave me a solution. I had to get my heart and head on the same page. I had to retrain myself how to react in various situations. It wasn’t easy, but Coach K and my teammates helped me navigate this awkward zone.
They picked me up, brushed me off, but instead of sending me back to Square One, they restarted me where I was. They didn’t kick me while I was down – I had the handle on that – instead they showed me mercy and grace. Sometimes their kindness was just as jarring as a body blow, throwing me off kilter. But I was learning that life and faith are about second chances.
Looking to avoid a fight
My seventh second chance came a few weeks later as softball season started. Although softball didn’t offer the same aggressive output, it was still a great outlet. And we were good. Very good. That same South Bay Area team that topped us in basketball couldn’t touch us on the diamond, and that felt very, very good.
As only a true nemesis can, this team provided the perfect test for my new attitude. Our final game of the season was on our home field. It was one of those games when you knew the first team to score would win. It took us forever just to get a runner to third. When we finally pushed across the would-be winning run, it was magic. Our side of the field erupted in cheers. Their side was calling for official reviews. Looking across the diamond, I could see the anger and frustration that I had felt in some of their faces. They were looking for a fight. I was hoping not to give them one.
As their coach wrangled them toward their bus and continued to yell at the umpire. We grabbed our gear and headed back to the school, which meant crossing the soccer field. A freshman was left behind to grab the bases. Just when we reached the building, something in me told me to turn around. Halfway across the soccer field was the freshman dawdling with bases unaware that fifty yards behind her the entire South Bay squad was marching at us.
Again images of friends being grabbed and hurt while I could only watch flashed in my mind. I yelled for her to drop the bags and run. My teammates had now turned to see why I was yelling and also started to call for her to hurry. She turned around and saw the squad and took off running, which started a stampede across the soccer field. By the time she reached us, they were closing fast. I sent her down the hallway, told her to find my mom’s car, get in it and lock the doors. She continued running.
We closed ranks at the end of the hallway. There were more of them than us. But for the first time I wasn’t standing alone. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I understood why they were angry. And very calmly I suggested they turn around and go get on their bus. A few other sentiments were exchanged, but we were a united, calm front, that was going nowhere. And just like The Quartet in the bathroom, they turned and left.
I was shocked. I hadn’t yelled. I hadn’t threatened. I hadn’t even tapped into my angry, frustrated, empty self. If I never won another game again ever in my life, I knew that day, that day, I had won a major personal victory.
Over the next several decades, I continued to build on that win. Sadly, I also have had stretches where I’ve chipped away at that progress. I’ve learned to surround myself with others who are encouraging and level-headed. When I have What If days, my friends are the ones I am most thankful for because I fear What I would have become If I had never known them. They make me better; they love me unconditionally, and they ask questions. And questions are best answered honestly.