When I was in sixth grade, my best friend was this wonderful girl named Amy. She was everything I wasn’t: adorable, petite, a snappy dresser and a gifted gymnast. We were definitely the odd couple, you know? She was my first best friend, and I adored her.
Gymnastics were the in thing for girls to do, and with Amy as my friend, I found myself doing cartwheels on the front lawn and watching Amy with wonder and admiration as she flipped through the air. I improved a little bit, but I never could master things like backbends or walk-overs.
Because gymnastics were all the rage, the gym teacher came up with the idea of having a gymnastics demonstration. You’d have to audition to be in the demonstration; Mrs. G. didn’t want an afternoon of somersaults and ineptitude.
A word about Mrs. G.
You may have noticed a few comments in my books about gym teachers not liking children. Mrs. G., I’m looking at you.
She wore her whistle like a weapon. She was rail-thin and intolerant of awkward, bookish children (me, for example). We played dodgeball far too often, and we geeks often left gym class with red marks from balls whipped at our exposed legs and arms. If you got hurt in class, she’d look at you with disgust, then sigh and send you to the nurse…or just tell you to toughen up.
In sixth grade, I was already five-foot-seven and wore a C cup bra. I towered over Mrs. G., outweighed her, and already I knew that I would never be lean and athletic and coordinated. I felt like a giant marshmallow of a person around her, with her cool stare and impatient voice, her bountiful praise for the athletic kids and distaste for the rest of us. Auditioning to perform in front of the entire middle school? So not my thing.
But Amy was my friend, and very optimistic and upbeat about getting her best buddy into the demonstration. She helped me design a gymnastics routine, and we practiced and practiced in my front yard after school for weeks. When Amy was done with me, I was maybe a C+, just slightly better than average.
The day of the auditions came. Amy was a shoe-in; she could do an aerial and back flips and all sorts of cool things. Same with my friend Laurie, who could do a back and front walk-over. Mrs. G. called names, watched girls with her dead-eyed stare and made notes on her clipboard. I waited and waited for my name to be called. But the hour grew late, and finally, she blew her whistle and said, “That’s it. We’re out of time. We have too many people as it is.” Ten or twelve of us hadn’t auditioned yet.
In a rare show of spine, I left Mrs. G. a note, which I remember almost word-for-word still. “I practiced for weeks and you didn’t even give me a chance. THANKS A LOT!!! Kristan Higgins.” She came into the locker room while I was still there, read the note and looked at me. “That’s too bad,” she said. “We ran out of time.” With that, she left.
When I got home, my mom asked how things went. “I didn’t get to try out,” I said, and yes, I was crying. “There were too many girls.”
My mom was then and is still a pretty mellow person. As a mother, her advice to us kids was generally, “Work it out.” She was as opposite a helicopter parent as could be. If she couldn’t see or hear us and we weren’t lying in a puddle of arterial blood, she’d assume we were fine. We played in the woods, talked to strangers, beat up on each other and rode bikes and horses without helmets. Mom didn’t care if we had a mean teacher, because our mean teachers weren’t as mean as the mean nuns she had as a kid. If there was a bully on the school bus, we were told to avoid him. Fail a test? Study harder next time. I didn’t expect a lot of sympathy about the gymnastics things.
If I hadn’t made the cut, I think Mom would’ve patted my hand and told me “Good try.” But she’d seen me out there with my much more talented friend, working on my cartwheels and pikes. She knew exactly how untalented I was.
Without another word, Mom picked up the phone, called the school and proceeded to tear Mrs. G. another orifice. How dare she deprive a dozen girls the chance even to try? How was that fair? Her poor time management skills were her own problem. What kind of a message was she sending?
The next day, a very chastened Mrs. G. did something completely unexpected. She apologized. Of course, every girl would get a chance to audition for the demonstration. There would be another afternoon of try-outs. It was her own mistake; she had underestimated the amount of interest, and she was very sorry if anyone felt bad. She met my eyes, and I knew: my gentle, funny, hippie-style mother had kicked some serious ass.
The rest of us got to audition. I made the cut. The day of the demonstration, my mom came to school and watched from the back. I was terrified, shaking and not very good. Amy was magnificent.
“I thought you were the best one there,” my mom lied as she drove me home.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks for making sure I got my chance.