The Lost Language
of Kickball

The Lost Language
            of Kickball

Life as we know
it changed for a lot of people in 1969. There was the
first man on the moon, the "Miracle Mets" upsetting the
heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to win their first
baseball World Series—and the beginning of
the end of my family. While my father, older brother,
and I were at Shea Stadium in Queens, N.Y., for game 3 of
that series, a tumor was growing in my mother's brain.
She was dead before my next birthday, and we had to
carry on without the driving force of our family.

Baseball was my
first passion, and the New York Mets were my first chosen
tribe. They provided the stability I didn't get at home. One
of the last things my mother did for me, between
hospital stays and five-day-a-week chemotherapy
sessions, was to get me into the Forest Hills Lassie League
when I was 9, one year earlier than the girls' softball
league allowed. She knew I would need something to
throw myself into once she was gone. My father later
told me that she did this in spite of her fear that my
passion for sports meant I would become a lesbian.

I was a tomboy
from day one. Almost as soon as I could walk, I began to
run, jump, and play baseball, football, and other games with
neighborhood kids. I played schoolyard punchball and
kickball in elementary school. Only one boy was a
better athlete, and he later played in the United
States Football League, a short-lived competitor to the
National Football League. People who saw me play
sports would often ask me if I was a boy or a girl
because they couldn't wrap their heads around how well I
played.

A typical
kickball game when I was 8 years old involved me kicking the
ball over everyone's head and sprinting around the bases. In
the field I would play shortstop and cover the entire
field, trying to make every play myself. I was
happiest when I was playing sports; I felt whole and
alive. Then we all hit puberty, a curve ball I was totally
unprepared for.

I was a year
younger than my classmates, which was fine in the classroom
but socially and physically disastrous. I was a small, wiry,
boyish girl, and around sixth grade my classmates
started developing into women and following the rules
of the popular girl hierarchy. They teased me
about my lack of a boyfriend and my choice of clothes. And
worse, boys didn't want to play with me anymore.

In junior high I
lost my closest friend because of my passion for sports.
In her rush to wear makeup and talk about boys, she
abandoned me. Her mother told her to stay away from me
because I was a “bad influence,” meaning
my love of sports was suspect and could lead to other
perversely unfeminine behaviors.

Despite such
traumatic rejections, I always believed that sports saved my
life. I was so numb with grief after losing my mother that
many times the only thing that kept me from committing
suicide was anticipation of my next softball game or
my desire to see how the Mets would do next season.
Sports was often the only thing potent enough to break
through the numbness.

I recently dug up
an old journal full of awful poetry and found a science
fiction story I wrote when I was 16 about an athletic
teenage girl who runs away from home in
“Musicville” and discovers a musical teenage
boy who ran away from “Sportsville.”
They eventually start a family together where each
child gets to choose who they want to be. I have always felt
that I was born into the wrong world or time, and I have
often identified with people who felt the same way.
Coming out as a lesbian when I was 18 brought me into
the LGBT community, another tribe I belonged to.

Childhood sports
is meant to be a fun way to create a feeling of
community. Unfortunately, it can be treacherous for kids who
are different. Children who grow up to be queer are
often chosen last or not at all: a prehomophobic
judgment of how well we fit traditional sex roles.
Boys are supposed to be jocks, girls, supermodels, and no
one is supposed to be too smart or creative. Anyone
who goes against the grain gets humiliated and abused
by defenders of the status quo. Many children reject
parts of themselves, trying to be something they're not, to
fit in. Others become perpetual outsiders. Sports
certainly has the power to reject—but it can
also bring people together in surprising ways.

While I was
recuperating from a serious kidney disorder in November
1999, the relationship between sports and healing kept
popping into my mind. I felt like I was being given
another chance to do something useful, and as much as
I tried to dismiss this idea as not important enough, it
made sense. Sports had always been part of my
emotional healing, so why not help other people who
need healing around sports in some way? For my own
healing process, I bought myself a new softball glove the
next spring as a 40th birthday present, to motivate me
to be physically well enough to play softball again.

In March 2001, I
was feeling much better and planned to try out for the
Prospect Park Women's Softball League in New York, where I
still live. A few days before tryouts, I taught a
friend how to throw a ball, helping her move past her
belief that girls are not supposed to be violent and
that throwing a ball was a violent act. After I got her to
throw the ball as hard as she could against a fence,
she burst into tears. In that moment I understood that
the barriers keeping some people from believing that
they belong in the sports arena are almost tangible. It felt
like my friend shattered the sports equivalent of a
glass ceiling.

That experience
convinced me to volunteer as a skills coach for the
league instead of playing. I found that teaching people the
basics of the game is as rewarding as playing it. It
has also deepened my desire to help people reconnect
with sports, especially those who felt excluded in gym
class or sports in general as children. I created a workshop
focusing on people who were chosen last in sports as
kids and have talked to many adults, mostly gay men
and lesbians, about their childhood sports experiences
of feeling rejected.

"Gym class was a
place of humiliation," a woman named Barbara told
me, and she learned to avoid it as much as possible.
According to a fellow named Allen, his lack of athletic
skills and knowledge led to physical and verbal abuse
and the clear message that he that didn't belong. "The
feeling of being unwanted was crushing," he said. For
Gary, a yoga teacher, "The number 1 humiliation in my
life was playing baseball." A typical scene, he said,
involved him "holding the glove in front of my face,
having the ball hit my glove, the glove hit my face,
and the ball drop out of my glove—and me cry on
the field."

Many people
believe time heals childhood trauma, but for most of the
people I've talked to, it hadn't. Healing requires
commitment and a willingness to explore old feelings
in a supportive environment.

In children's
sports today, the focus is shifting from competition to
cooperation, and physical education standards have been
instituted to make sure that as many children as
possible develop a healthy attitude toward lifelong
physical activity. These changes bode well for the
future, but it does not help adults who went through sports
hell years ago.

In 2005, I met
out television and film director Victor Mignatti, who was
looking for a sports coach. Mignatti believed that "the
more I could push my comfort zone in the sports arena,
the more I could do it in my career." He grew up in
suburban Philadelphia, and his lack of interest in
sports was something his parents and peers noticed early on.
Other kids told him he threw like a girl, so he avoided
sports that involved throwing. He remembered being
chosen last many times, the last occasion during a
ninth-grade dodgeball game. After that he became
skilled at avoiding gym class.

Mignatti and I
met three times in Prospect Park, starting out by throwing
a soft Spider-Man ball. I broke down the components of
throwing and catching, and we worked on each part
separately, eventually putting them together into one
motion. As we progressed to a softball and then a
baseball, he talked about his relationship with sports. The
biggest issue, he said, was that the pressure to learn
to play sports "ruined an experience that should have
been fun."

He talked about
working with a personal trainer at Crunch, who one day
threw a medicine ball at him, invoking memories of P.E.
class. "I had no choice but to throw the ball back,"
he remembered. "So there I was playing catch in the
gym in front of everyone. It was a truly major
experience in my life," one that led him to want to
challenge himself further.

Since then
Mignatti's attitude toward sports has changed
dramatically. "I wish I hadn't been pressured so much by the
gym teacher or my peers in school so that I could have
learned to appreciate the purity of athletics," he
said. "I've started to understand why men love sports
so much. Repetitive motion keeps me from being
depressed, and it gets me immediately out of my head."

Sports reenacts
tribal warfare, from face paint to fight songs. The
problem starts when it is used to wage war against women and
gay men or simply those who are smaller, slower, or
less coordinated. Throughout sports history, brave
people like Jackie Robinson have knocked down
barriers, leading sports into ever-widening circles of
inclusion. Former professional basketball player John
Amaechi has done a great deal to shift the mainstream
closer to the side of acceptance by having the courage
to come out as a gay man after a successful career in the
National Basketball Association.

Over the years
I've encouraged everyone that I've talked to about this
topic to challenge their beliefs and try to move through
them. Many have done just that. Today, Gary, the yoga
teacher who considered baseball the most humiliating
experience of his life, is about to start his third
season playing for his church softball team in Minnesota.
Barbara is planning to try out for her local women's
softball league this year.

The lost language
of kickball is that small voice that says, "You belong
in the tribe." From a girl playing kickball with the boys, a
lesbian joining a softball league for the first time, or a
gay man discovering his inner athlete, we all have a
place in today's sports world, if we want it. We just
have to step up to the plate and kick as hard as we
can.

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