They told me I was bad at sports: Unfortunately, I listened.
I was actually moderately good at sports. My peers were too busy bullying me to notice.
My negative experience in the Brookline, Massachusetts public school system— from the beginning of 1st grade until the end of 8th — has left many lasting scars. One I don’t think about often, because it was more a symptom of the larger trauma of being bullied than a major trauma in itself, is how much it affected my relationship with organized sports. That is, I do not have one.
What’s sad is that at Lincoln Elementary, I was actually good-ish at sports. Not great but good. My classmates’ pride required them to exclude the unpopular girl. I got no praise or compliments for my far-from-rare athletic successes. No matter how good I was, I was never picked for kickball at recess. Because Alaina was uncool. So picking her would have made you look uncool.
I wasn’t the best at kickball — I would never be MVP — but I could kick and run and catch. My kicks were strong and focused. Not showy, or so high that they could easily be caught. By design, they were both low and quick to bounce, thus allowing others to “come home.” I was the definition of a team player. No one ever noticed or thanked me when my kicks brought them home. Similarly, no one slapped me five when I got home. They noticed when popular kids did the same.
They ignored me and shrugged when I got them a point. The narrative was that I was a loser, even when I was literally abetting the winning team. Even when I was actively scoring them points. It was as if Alaina’s points didn’t count. When I caught the ball, and got someone out, only the opposite team seemed to care.
Similarly, I was good at softball. I almost always hit the ball, and not too weakly. I knew to aim it between 2nd and 3rd, avoiding shortstop. I ran awkwardly but stalwartly. I could keep the pace. I was no slouch. I scored, or at least made my base, more often than I struck out. I would never be a powerhouse and I knew that. But I was decent. I had hustle. I had basic competence.
And I was too “weird” for anyone to acknowledge that. That Alaina didn’t suck — and was actually an underrated asset — didn’t fit their narrative.
I associated sports with failure, disrespect and injustice. As such, I instinctively avoided them in high school. It never even occurred to me to participate; it wasn’t something I considered and rejected. That’s how internally I’d taken the slight, the repeated message that I was to be excluded. It had more to do with my personality and social status than my physical prowess — and I think that’s part of what hurt the most. It was so deeply and profoundly personal.
Even if I’d shown up and been welcomed by friendly teammates who didn’t ridicule me if I made mistakes — this being Brookline, that’s not unlikely — I would have assumed they were just being nice. That no one wanted me on their team, for I was at best useless and at worst a drain. Christ, that’s some Charlie Brownesque level pathos. Wow Alaina, why don’t you just walk with your head down to that sad tune? You know the one.
And again: I was good at sports in elementary school. Not great. But good. And no one recognized it. Not even me, really.
Bullying is so bad for sports. And everything else.
On the other hand, even people who actively bullied me begrudgingly admitted I was a talented comedic actress. I associated theater with personal dignity. I had success on the stage. My writing was also respected.
I won’t list my artistic CV here, but I’m happy. I consider myself a relatively successful, extremely fortunate artist. (Warning: Here comes bragging) I’ve had poems published in journals, philosophy essays published online, plays performed in small competitive festivals, been cast many times as an actress, my visual art used in lectures and as illustrations, presented my short films at academic conferences, my (admittedly unpublished) novel analyzed and praised by multiple people. Which is to say that it’s sad; it isn’t tragic. My life is not miserable or empty just because it doesn’t have sports in it.
But I sometimes imagine a parallel universe in which I was allowed to be athletic as well as artistic. When I didn’t come to Brookline High School, hear the phrase “Girls’ tryouts” and automatically think “ha ha nope.” I think, on balance, a sport would have been good for me. I wonder what would have happened if I’d tried my hand at something like field hockey, volleyball, softball or lacrosse.
And while it would be arrogant for me to assume I could elevate any team, I think there’s a good chance I could have been good for it, too. I mean…I don’t have a fiercely competitive spirit. As such, the other team isn’t going to be intimidated by my very presence. No outstanding athlete, I wouldn’t be the “top scorer” or anything dramatic. But teams need internal cheerleaders. They need foot-soldiers. They need the dorky girl who isn’t out for glory but can take direction and hit the basic marks, helping her teammates as best she can.
I won’t wallow in the contrafactual parallel universe. But I think it’s OK to mourn it, a little.
As it is, I was not called to the Brookline Warriors. It’s fine; I was pulled elsewhere. My dance card was filled with theater and nerdy pursuits. I didn’t spend high school chasing balls, but neither did I spend the majority of it sitting alone, looking for four-leafed clovers on the field where others played. I only spent an average of a few hours per year searching for four-leafed clovers on the athletic field, and to my credit (luck) I always found at least one. But that’s another story.
Because I felt relatively fulfilled in extracurricular activities, I didn’t consider at the time that maybe I was being deprived — while also depriving others of a solid if unspectacular teammate. That there might been just a little bit of unrealized Warrior in me.
Then again, I’m not all that into discipline. High school sports with its rigor and time demands might have been an awkward fit for my flaky ass. Really, I just wanted to play sports for a half hour at recess, and also have my contribution to the game recognized. Not lauded with applause, but merely a humanizing nod. A literal pat on the shoulder with the acknowledgment that I was, in fact, helping. Meager talent combined with meager dedication, met with meager reward.
That would have been appropriate and just. What’s more, it might have inspired me to stay in the field longer, to take a risk I never imagined it was my right to take. To pick up the bat or put on the glove and say, “Hey, I belong here too.”
Edit: As I think should be clear, my largely awful experience at Lincoln Elementary in Brookline does not translate into contempt for the town itself. My experiences at the high school were far more positive, and in retrospect I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else. I’m beyond grateful to Jules Van Oosterom and Brian Campbell, both of the Brookline High Strategic Games Club and my friends for decades, for helping me with the technical aspects of publishing this story. I’m nerdy, but I’m also kinda ditzy! People are complex!
Actually, Brian Campbell is not only a Strategic Games Club Dictator-For-Life — a new one is chosen every year — but a fellow Lincoln nerd. Thank you for being the one person who ever picked me for whiffle ball, Brian.
And I don’t want to imply that I have no other friends from my Lincoln years, or that every single one of my classmates was uniformly terrible. Again, people are complex.
Thanks also to Joseph King for his help with the content and title of this piece. I am friends with cool, smart people. See? Happy ending!