Women talk a lot about raising each other up. We make signs and applaud the movement to flex and demonstrate our strengths enough to generate a mighty wind, which we’ll use to power a greater good. We post about offering our shoulders for others to stand on, so they might finally be able to reach their dreams. But what does all of this really look like? What is the commonplace, everyday application for lifting up our sisters? Or our neighbors? Or our children?
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how abstract these concepts have been to me. I mean, the memes are great, and I love a good quote, but when you take the lipstick off, what does this particular type of empowerment look like? I wasn’t sure. Until last weekend, when I stopped looking for a grand demonstration and saw it, instead, in its purest presentation. In my daughter’s eyes.
I think I told you guys how Hank and I recently jeopardized our status as mediocre parents when, in an effort to save some of our Saturdays, we decided to sign Spikey up for the same basketball team as JoJo, even though she was two years younger and 4 inches shorter than her average teammate. When we started to question our decision, we resigned ourselves to the argument that it would build character and make her just that much better. Adversity, after all, breeds growth, right?
Each week, the kids would have 30 minutes of practice followed by a 30-minute game. Each little player was on the court for two of the four quarters. Well, on that very first week, Spike took an arm to the glasses, and that was all she wrote. She was still up for the practices, but she turned on the tears when the coaches tried to put her in for the game. “I don’t like people running at me!” she would say through pouty lips under a drippy nose.
The team had two coaches, a man and a woman. The latter, Coach Kasey, just had a way. She was young and athletic and a card-carrying mom herself. She pushed ever so gently by standing right behind them, supporting and cheerleading. She never forced Spike onto that court. Ever. And it was a good thing, too, because I did everything wrong. I pulled every ill-fated play from the playbook. I drenched her in compliments for minor tasks. I bribed. I threatened. I guilted. All laughable attempts that were destined to fall short. And why would they work? After so many “I believe in you”s and “Never say can’t”s, your parents just start to sound like the salesperson at a department store. “Oh my gosh, you can totally pull off snakeskin pleather pants!” It’s just pink noise.
Coach Kasey would check in on our girl and then jog over to the sideline and give me updates. “She said she’d try in the next quarter.” “She’s afraid of that girl on the other team.” “Her knee hurts.” “Her eye hurts.” “She forgot to wear underwear.” Always being a fellow mom to me, but a strong example to them. Positive and constructive and subtle.
At their second to last game, Kay came to watch the girls play. Spike had promised for weeks that she would play for Kay. In fact, she’d asked if her former caregiver would come later in the season so she could be at her very best. You have to really know Kay to appreciate the pressure here. She is a former volleyball and basketball coach and she gets a little … intense. She likes to yell and throw up ref signals, and I’m pretty certain it’s all involuntary. So, when it came time for Spike’s debut, and there wasn’t a lot of movement on the bench, I got a little worried.
But Kay sure as shit didn’t. She just tucked her coat under her arm and marched right over. Hank and I stood aside and looked on as Kay, Coach Kasey and the referee, a sweet older teenage gal, huddled around our hesitant five year old and coaxed her onto the court. We let the village raise our child. She played for two of the six minutes that quarter. Parents in the stands gave her enthusiastic thumbs up as she walked back over to her seat to grab her water bottle. When it was her turn again, she turned in a solid 45 seconds right at the end. I was thrilled.
The tiny taste of the action was enough to awaken the humble giant inside her. The entire week leading up to the final matchup, she told us she was going to play the entire game – all of the minutes Coach Kasey wanted her to play. She wasn’t going to be fast or yelling or waving her arms, she prefaced, but she was going to stay in and stay right there with her coach.
And you guys, she did.
She really did.
Just like the other kids, she played two full quarters, glued to the role model she admired so. Where Coach Kasey went, Spike went. When Coach Kasey told her to put her hands up, pass, run, she did it. Soon, she was running on ahead of Coach Kasey, as her knowing instructor hung back just enough to let her lead. Standing right behind her. Masterfully pushing her on.
And then, the Rudy moment. She shot the ball. Twice.
This adorable love nugget – who spent game after game sitting curled up, knees to her nose, arms crossed, peeking up over her legs with her sparkly purple glasses – that little bug stepped up and flung the ball toward the hoop with everything in her, from her toes to her fingertips. I’d be lying if I denied I got choked up over the whole thing, for the love of leggings!
After the final buzzer, Coach Kasey handed out awards. JoJo got “Best Listener” and Spike got “Team Spirit”. Might as well have been “Best Actress in a Lead Role” and “Best New Artist”. They raced over to show us their certificates and the shiny medals they were wearing with smiles to match. I bent down and gave JoJo a squeeze, then turned to Spike. “I am so proud of you, honey. You really did it.”
She asked if I’d take a picture for her. I followed after her wild brown ponytail, so much pride in her step, as she juggled her snacks and her accolades on a path to find Coach Kasey. As I watched their teacher crouch down in between them, I swallowed hard. This woman probably thought she was just volunteering to share her time and talent with her son’s team. What she actually did was positively alter the mental makeup of a stranger, my Spikey.
It’s truly awesome how people come into our lives and unexpectedly, through the most modest efforts, build new bridges on the map. They rewire parts of our confidence, our character, our backbone. That was what Coach Kasey did for my daughter. By staying with her, behind her, she ever-so-slightly reprogrammed the part of her heart where bravery resides.
As we walked to the car, Spikey’s mind couldn’t catch up with her mouth. “As I ran down and back and forth and I checked the ball and I shot the ball up there, I kept getting prouder and prouder and braver of myself!” She told us how badly she wanted to play basketball again, but only if Coach Kasey could be there. Hank and I exchanged knowing grins, heavy with the burdensome truths grownups carry around. Not a conversation for today. How could I tell those baby brown eyes that we would only be putting her in her appropriate age group going forward, and that made our paths crossing again unlikely?
As we made our way down the road, I heard mousey sniffles. I turned around and tears were rolling down her tender cheeks.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
“Are you hurt?” JoJo inquired.
“Are you tired?” I offered.
“Are you embarrassed you forgot underwear?” JoJo threw out there, which finally made her smile.
“I miss Coach Kasey,” she sobbed. And I felt stinging at the backs of my eyes.
Ugh! I hated that it clicked so late for my gentle lady. I hated that she’d made that connection and now it was over. It’s like when everyone tells you the fried egg sandwich at a local restaurant is to die for but you put off making the trip, and then you do and it is so amazing and then they take it off the menu the next week. The worst! I’ll be honest, I’m fine with getting our Saturdays back, but I would sit there seven days a week to see the pride I saw that morning on her face again. Those victories are so few and far between. And the first couple you get in life are the sweetest ones of all.
Coach Kasey packed up her own family that day and went back to her routine. And I’m willing to bet she has mommy moments of her own where, like all of us, she feels inadequate, disappointing, under-qualified. Maybe not, I’m guessing here. But I hope that Saturday she felt a small sense of what she gave to our middle chick. That she became my real-life illustration of what it means to lift people up. Small girls need grown women they can model themselves after. They will mimic what’s put in front of them, whether it’s good or it’s bad. I am so moved by the influence this woman, whose name I’d never heard 10 weeks ago, had on my ladybugs.
This is what I so desperately want for this place; A community that raises up our fellow citizens and our tinies and one that fosters a warm, safe morale where everyone feels empowered. I don’t know about you, but it’s felt like much of the world has been standing out in the cold for months now. It’s isolating living in a place so plagued by conspiracies and discontentment. But my hope for my children is that it’s different through their eyes. As I looked over and saw other parents clapping for my daughter’s air ball, I felt my heart swell. It was like taking a full breath for the first time this year. All the way in … and all the way out.
I don’t need my girls to be all star athletes, let’s not kid ourselves here. But I did see the invaluable struggle between self doubt and perseverance playing out for their tiny souls on that court. People talk about the parallels between sports and the real world all the time. Now I get it. And if our time in that microcosm has any correlation to the current state of things, perhaps there’s hope for this race after all.
Be someone’s Coach Kasey.
Raise someone up if you can.
Let them stand on your shoulders and offer your voice to make theirs louder.
When pure intentions and unbridled encouragement come together, hope has plenty of room to grow and spill over into all the dark corners and spaces where doubt likes to dwell.
Raise someone up.