One of the most scarring childhood memories is being a Gym Wallflower – the last one picked for a sports team.
The Helena Junior High School organized an intramural volleyball season and had gathered the 7th-grade girls 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.
Shanna and I were co-captains and stood on the black line with a competitive spirit. After days of whispered hallways conversations, we could taste victory with the team we’d mentally assembled. We were disappointed to be on the end of the line, therefore, the last ones to choose. We complained that 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 begin contributing her opinions about who could play and who couldn’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 we didn’t like it. We didn’t see our own ugly until someone else wore it.
After the first round, we changed our minds about our team’s purpose. We wouldn’t choose to win. We would choose our friends and the girls that needed to be chosen. We continued our conversation at a louder decibel and threw out a few casual compliments for the girls sweating in the bleachers to overhear.
When it was down to the last girls, we said their names with confidence and enthusiasm, to show we wanted them on our team. A few captains showed their disappointment in having to settle for the wallflowers.
(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 since 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. We watched some of the “good” girls 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 that was different.
- We would NOT call out each others’ mistakes, but would always say “Good try!” Humiliation makes someone play worse, not better.
- We would NOT call each other names.
- We would practice and try to improve our skills. If someone needed instruction, you had to be nice.
In the brutal world of Junior High, we were determined to stand out. 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 because we wanted the others 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. We all improved because we weren’t shamed by humiliation. Other girls said they wished they could play on our team because they were tired of being yelled at.
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!