Being a Gym Wallflower – the last one picked for a sports team – can be the most scarring childhood memory.
The Helena Junior High School had organized an intra-mural volleyball season so the 7th grade girls were gathered in the gym to make their own teams. We all knew the drill. The girls sat in the bleachers while the captains lined up in front to choose.
A co-captain with my friend, Shanna, we stood together with a competitive spirit. We could taste victory with the team we’d mentally assembled in whispered hallway conversations the previous days. We were disappointed to be on the end of the line, therefore, the last ones to choose. We complained all the “good” girls would be taken.
The drama unfolded as the captains began choosing. As one team announced the name of a “good” player, girls would cheer, and the other captains would huff in disappointment. The chosen girl would swagger to her huddle and began contributing her opinions about who was good and who wasn’t.
The quick study in human behavior wasn’t lost on two girls who had already survived six years of elementary playground torment. In slo-mo, we vividly saw pride and shame taking sides and didn’t like it. We didn’t see the ugly until someone else wore it.
After the first round, we changed our minds about our team’s purpose. We would not choose to win. We would choose our friends and the girls that needed to be chosen. Our conversation was continued in a louder decibel, and we threw out a few casual compliments for the girls sweating in the bleachers to overhear.
Even when it was down to the last girls, we said their names with confidence and enthusiasm, to show we wanted them on our team. Other captains were disappointed to have to settle for the wallflowers, and let it be shown.
(My 7th grade basketball team. Different girls, same bleachers.Yep, I’m number 13.)
When the last girl straggled down from the bleachers, each team was assigned a place in the gym to practice. We huddled together and tried to become a team. We couldn’t agree on a name, and all the cool names, like Tigers and Panthers, were quickly taken. We opted for unique humor and agreed to name ourselves Jingle Bells and tie little silver craft bells on our gym shoes. We would mark our territory with the jingle of a different drum.
As our team began practicing together, Shanna and I noticed once again pride and shame rearing their ugly heads in the gym as we watched some of the “good” girls on each team berate the “bad” girls.
Another huddle was called. I gave a pep talk with the passion and vocabulary of a 12 year old who desperately wanted a team different than the others.
- We would NOT call out each others’ mistakes, but would always say “Good try!” Humiliation makes someone play worse, not better.
- We would NOT name call.
- We would practice and try to improve our skills. If you needed to correct or instruct someone, be nice.
In the brutal world of Junior High, we determined to be different. We might not win a lot of games, but we were going to try hard, have fun, and show our spirit. Our unity would be announced with jingle bells. We wanted the other junior highers to hear our message.
I’ve never forgotten my 12 year old amazement.
During the short volleyball season, the Jingle Bells chattered and encouraged through the games, giving back pats and smiles. We were noticed, and it wasn’t just the jingle bells tied to our shoes. The girls improved because they weren’t shamed by humiliation. Other girls wished they could play on our team because they were tired of being yelled at when they made a mistake.
We won some games. We lost some games. But, we had a great season because we became a real team.
I have no idea if any of my former volleyball teammates even remember this time in Junior High when we marked our territory with the silvery jingles of acceptance and encouragement.
But I will never forget what it means to be a Jingle Bell.
Being a Jingle Bell rocks!