Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Being a Good Sport

Today’s soccer lesson really started last night. “I don’t WAN’ to go ta sawkka tomowwow,” with a little chin-quiver.  I thought she had rallied by bedtime, when she tucked her pink blanket under her chin and announced, from under her princess canopy, “Tomowwow I yam goin’ to take da ball AWAY fwom dat tall girl.”

But the morning did not begin well. Exhausted from three days of nonstop fun with her grandparents, she overslept and wasn’t hungry for breakfast. She was cold. She didn’t want a sweater. I found her new Spyder fleece with the glittery spider on it. That was much better. And so forth. And so on.  Although I allowed gobs of extra time, we still barely made it to the car.

Then, as we were in the car, waiting for DH to join us, he opened the door and growled, “You’re on your own. We have a broken water pipe. The basement’s flooded.” PLOMPF went the door and away went DH.

“I don’t WAN’ to go ta sawkka,” He’en writhed in her carseat.  She probably thought a basement flood sounded a lot more exciting. Truth, I did also by that time. But we had a deal: she had begged and pestered for soccer, so she must attend at least three of the five lessons. I reminded her of the deal – more chin-quivering – and off we went.

She grumped and fussed in the car. She dragged and scuffed into the school gym. She drooped and hid behind me as the other kids found soccer balls and did warmups. But! After securing my ironclad promise to participate during the parent-participation portion of the lesson, she seemed to rally.  With good cheer, she marched in the little line of kids around the perimeter of the basketball court (designated today as the soccer field).

At this point I breathe a little inward sigh of relief and pick up my phone as the kids begin their first drill. I hear He’en snottily complaining to the coach about how she can’t find her ball, and some other kid took the red ball, and God-knows-what-else, but I just open my Kindle app and pretend she’s somebody else’s kid.

About four sentences into my Lindsay Buroker e-book, however, I hear a sustained wail and glance up to see He’en flat-out on the floor. She apparently collided with somebody during the Red Light.  I pause a moment to see if this is standard He’en-drama or something more meaningful, but the other kids have cleared the floor and now I will look like a real wanker if I just let my kid lie there and/or yell, “woman up!” from the sidelines. Plus another little girl is in tears, apparently being a sympathetic type, and is running to He’en to comfort her, so now we have wailing kids littering the field and the lesson at a standstill.

The other mom scoops up her sympathetic bundle and gets her off the field. So I, with an over-the-shoulder apology to the coach, likewise scoop up a sobbing He’en and carry her out of the gym with hot tears seeping into my neck.

Outside the gym, we try taking deep breaths.
“Are you hurt, honey?”
“My fin-gah,” she gasps between sobs. I covertly peer at her finger and it indeed is very red and angry-looking. Damn. Don’t be broken, finger.

“Ok, let’s walk outside and look at the trees and take some deep breaths of the cool air. We will find a rock to sit on, and I will look at your finger.”
Nods and sobs.

I take her outside and we find the promised rock.
“Now, put your hands out like this. Can you spread your fingers apart? Can you make a fist?”
To great my relief, she does all of that, albeit gingerly.

“Ok, let me touch your finger.”
She allows that too and I carefully manipulate the suspect digit. Thank God, not a broken finger.

“Did you get the wind knocked out of you when you fell?”
She doesn’t know, so I tell her about how it feels to get the wind knocked out of you and then imitate that first breath you take when you can breathe again. She almost giggles at the goofy noise I make. She almost looks sane again.

“So let’s go back in there.”
Flinch. Quiver. “I don’t WANT to play sawkkah. I want to go HOME.”

Well, heck. I don’t want my kid to be a quitter, but the odds of having a good lesson after this are nearly nill. And, yet, she has to learn to power through a bad day. I think and think. Again, I earn the big bucks by deciding where to push and where to concede.

“You don’t have to play, but I want us both to watch. There may be skills that you can learn by watching. You can sit in my lap if you want.” 

She consents to that, and we trail back into the gym. “We’re just going to watch for a while,” I mouth to the coach. She, having made a career of dealing with other people’s children, nods in perfect understanding.

We watch a few exercises, and then He’en tugs at my arm and whispers – as I had hoped -- “Okay. I wan’ to play again. But only if you come WIF’ me.” Fine. At least she is on the field.

Happily, we are just in time for the next exercise: Clock Soccer. Parent-volunteers stand in a circle, each with a child or two behind them. The kids run once around the circle and then stop behind their parent. After a couple dry runs, it is attempted with soccer balls.

He’en does not run the first time. She is afraid of falling, she says, and huddles behind me with her face buried in the back of my shirt. On the second drill, she listlessly trots around the circle and then comes back and attaches herself to my pants pocket. I bat her away in time for a third drill (with a soccer ball). Sulking over being pried loose, she refuses to participate. On the fourth drill, I make her stand there with the other parents and I dribble the ball around the circle myself, trying not to knock over any little kids. On the fifth and final drill, He’en takes the ball four steps and then returns to hanging on my pockets. Again, I detach her, making me her most unfavorite person.

The next drill is one-on-one.  He’en has been dreading this for two weeks: in her first lesson, a taller, stronger girl scored three goals on her in quick and fierce succession. He’en is still not over the indignity.  “I ohn-wee [only] want to play if I can be da Bwankos,” she announces to me. Then she trots up to her coach and asks if she can have one of the orange jerseys. (I sneak back to the sidelines and resume pretending that she is not my kid.)

The coach puts off her request until the end of the team selections. But, at that time, she gently and wisely hands He’en the coveted orange jersey and matches her against a little girl who is similarly sized and has been intermittently refusing to play unless one – and sometimes both – of her parents is on the field with her.

Clutching the jersey but still not entirely appeased, He’en comes off the field to me with her chin again a-quiver.

“You said YOU would pay wif’ [play with] me.”
“And I will, Helen, when they call our numbers.”
Glower. “But you don’ haff . . . you need . . . but you are not a Bwanko.”
“Well, I know I am on your team, honey. I don’t need an orange jersey.”

He’en is in a fierce mood today, however, and this simply is not tenable. Before I can say, “that’s not my kid,” she is back at the coach’s knee, plucking at the coach’s shirt and demanding a jersey for “my mawm.”  Unbelievably, the coach has an extra orange jersey in hand and ready. It is four-year-old sized, however. “I usually just tuck it in my pants,” the coach advises me over the kids’ heads. I nod and begin to follow suit. But He’en is having none of it.

“You have to WEAH’ it,” she hisses.
“But I will wear it here on my pants . . .”
“NO! You SAID you would pay and WEAH’ it. You POM-issed.”  A little tear rolls down one cheek.

I hold up the jersey and stare at it. It’s still four-year-old sized. I am seriously wishing I’d taken up Helen on her demand to go home ten minutes ago. But I hadn’t, and now I am stuck with my own stupid lesson about good sportsmanship. So I stuff the jersey into my bra on top and into my jeans on the bottom. It covers my front like a lobster bib.

“How about that, Helen?”
She nods with grudging satisfaction as the other moms behind me – those with normal kids, apparently – launch a patter of appreciative commentary along the lines of, “You go girl!”
“I checked so much dignity at the door of that delivery room,” I sigh back to them as He’en and I jog toward the “field.”

He’en is matched three times in one-on-ones against her opponent. The first time, we run onto the field together and He’en gets the ball away from the other girl, who is a beautiful fragile sylph of a creature with long black hair and big dark eyes. Giggling maniacally, He’en kicks a goal . . . into her own team’s net.

“That’s great,” I encourage her, “but you need to try for the other team’s net – that one down there.”

He’en instantly stops on the field and runs to the sidelines as the other little girl intercepts the ball and starts to nudge it downfield with the help of her own mother. The coach whistles our match to a stop and I join Helen on the sidelines. She has a choice few words for me.

“I yam not goin’ to play again. I don’ wan’ you telling me what to do.”
“But, Helen, the game has rules.”
“I kicked da ball into the goal. I got a goal.”
“Well, you did. But it was your own team’s goal. If you want me to play out there with you, we’re going to play by the rules and try for the other goal.”

She doesn’t have the vocabulary for “the hell we are,” but I can see it in her eyes. And, sure enough, the next time they call our number, she refuses to take the field.

“Number fives!” the coach carols.

I pause on the sidelines and look back at Helen.

“Number fives?”  the coach looks questioningly at me.

The other little girl and her father take the field.

“Helen, that’s our number; are you coming out?”

“No,” she growls, folding her arms.

“It’s . . . um, it’s just me this time,” I call across to the coach.

Undaunted, the coach carries on. She probably has seen it all. “All right then! Number fives!” and TWEET goes her whistle.

I play a little gentle dribbling with Helen’s opponent and then -- of course -- let her score a goal against me. Delighted, she grins at me and then heads upfield with her father. Helen glares from the sidelines. I surrender the field without making any eye contact with my churlish offspring. Take that, crabpatch.

On the third and final round, Helen is ready and willing to play again. With no help from me, she channels all her frustration into snatching the purple soccer ball from her tiny opponent. She dribbles it down the field and smacks it into the correct goal. The other little girl, defending, bursts into tears. He’en shoots a triumphant glare at me with a smile that I do not like at all.

I turn He’en around by the shoulders and make her say, “good game,” to her sobbing opponent, and I remind her how she felt last week when the tall girl took the ball away three times. I am not sure any of it makes a dent. I feel bad for the other little girl; the orange jersey is starting to itch; I was really over this whole thing twenty minutes ago; and whose freaking idea was it anyway that four-year-olds should be capable of competitive sports?

With my last reserves of patience, I accompany He’en through the last drill. The coach saves “kicks on goal” for the end. Each team lines up in front of its own goal, and the kids take turns sinking that ball into the net. Everybody gets at least one goal if they have to throw it in. I look forward to this moment with great joy, primarily because I know the end of this soccer hour is near.

After several goals, the kids are all smiles again, and the coach calls for her jerseys.

“Better get out there, Helen. She has stickers,” I counsel with blank exhaustion. Maybe there will be one bright glimmer in this dark morning.  I peel off my itchy lobster bib with great relief and He’en surrenders it for me. The kids collect their balls and gather around the coach. They exchange high-fives with the other kids in the class.

Just as I am zipping my purse and wondering whether it’s really déclassé to bring a flask to next week’s session, I see Helen angling toward me with an air of great purpose. She comes right in to hugging distance and starts to pluck at my shirt.

“Helen . . . ” I am just about to chide her for picking at me yet again when I look down and realize what she is doing.

“Dere,” she smiles, affixing a neon-pink smiley-face sticker to my shirt collar. “Dat is your sticker. You did a gweat job today, Mom.” She received two stickers and has given me the big one. For herself, she has kept only a small pink star.

I am drained, frustrated, cranky, and deeply moved.  I want to say that she did a great job, too, but a) that would be a total lie, and, b) I can’t get the words out anyway because I am weeping a little. So I just hug her and hug her. Oh, this child, this child of my own.

I had no idea it was so hard to be a soccer mom.