I was something of a tomboy as a kid, and even though I was not very good at it I loved to join the boys’ kickball game at recess. This was back in the golden years, ages 9-11, when it was still possible to ignore the impending onset of strict gender roles. It was also in those not-so-golden pre-Title IX days, when girls didn’t play sports and there were very few teachers who thought they should. There were only a couple of us girls who had either the courage or the obliviousness to actually try getting in on the games. Lately, the memory of these games has been on my mind.
As soon as the recess bell rang I would trot out to the far corner of the playground where all the boys had already chosen sides, and stand around in the outfield until someone noticed me. I was a year younger than all the other kids in my class, and though I was pretty strong I was not what you’d call fast. I also didn’t have any place to practice kicking and catching that ball outside of recess, so though I wasn’t afraid of the ball I wasn’t very skilled at working with it.
All this was mitigated by the fact that there were some really wonderful boys in my class who would stick up for me and make sure I got to play. Michael Chamberlain in particular I remember as the one who was a leader among them and usually the first to insist that they find me a team to join. I’d play outfield (of course), and spent the whole half an inning both hoping that the ball came my way and being terrified that it would. I remember the sting against my forearms from catching the kickball those rare times that I did, and the sound the ball would make as I caught it–a chord of harmonics in a short, round echo. I remember the satisfying thwack against my instep when I made a good kick, which happened occasionally, and how the gravelly asphalt felt under my sneakers as I ran the bases. I can even recall the print dresses I usually wore, and my favorite pair of corduroy pants I was only allowed to wear to school on Fridays.
All these memories rose to consciousness last week after I got back to aikido for the first time since before Winter Solstice. As usually happens on returning to the spiritual and physical sport I love, I approached the mat with a mixture of exhilaration and dread that I recognize from my days playing kickball with the boys. Aikido is intoxicating to me — a serious workout as well as a powerful moving meditation. At the same time, there are some techniques that I am not yet comfortable with, so often my practice is to feel the sharp knot of fear in my gut and keep breathing and training anyway.
Aside from the sensei, I was one of only two women black belts on the mat last Saturday. I know how important it was for me coming up through the ranks to watch women of higher rank be successful on the mat, so that adds another layer to my awareness in class. Times have changed since 5th grade and I consider the men at my dojo to be my friends and equals in the art, and we train together in a spirit of joy and mutual affection. I recognize in their friendship an element of protection as well as respect, which makes them all the more dear to me and puts me in mind of my childhood friends back on the kickball field.
The lesson to me from this recent spate of memory is that sometimes it only takes one person to level the playing field. In a group of opposed or ambivalent people, it only takes one voice which speaks with authority and mutual respect to get the group to do the right thing. If I hadn’t been allowed to play kickball I probably still would have gotten into aikido, but I would have come to it without knowing in my body that being courageous and vulnerable can sometimes lead to acceptance and success. Tonight, I am very grateful for having learned that lesson when and how I did.