It was an unusually warm, fall day, and I sat lazily on a canvas fold-up chair on the grass, on the sidelines of my 5-year-old daughter’s soccer game. It was Emmanuelle’s sixth game, and I was happy to have remembered to bring adequate entertainment for myself, as I tend to get ADD when it comes to all things sports. “Don’t forget to keep your eye on Number 7!” she says happily, referring to the number plastered on the back of her uniform, before running onto the field with her red-jerseyed teammates. I nod and smile, and open the book in my lap.
I have tried very, very hard to observe the game, but I can’t follow the swarm of children as they mob the ball, like bees clustered in a hive, kicking in the air and at each others’ shins, and every now and then, at the ball. But it’s not just their lack of skill. When my husband is watching a professional football game on TV, I find it to be wasteful to sit and observe each play, and prefer to know the final score when the game has ended (not that I even have a team that I was rooting for). I would rather sit and read, or write. And so, I come equipped with all the necessary materials for the hour-long sports-fest.
As I am munching on my nuts and M&M’s trail mix, a couple positioned next to me makes themselves rather obvious by their incessant screaming and cheering. “Go Jessie! Get off the sidelines, kick it far!” the father demands, from his fold-up chair, using a voice and an energy that I typically reserve for severe disciplinary moments. Jessie’s mom is standing next to her husband, her toes, inches away from the white-powdered foul line, holding a newborn infant who is still dressed in his pajamas. He is angled so he too can watch the game, can see what he has in store for him if he does not finish all the peas on his plate, if he talks disrespectfully, if he sneaks a cookie before dinner. He too might be punished by having to play soccer, by being subjected to a public admonishment by his parents.
Jessie’s mother is jumping up and down, yelling her own initiatives. “That’s the goal!” she screams, pointing and flailing her arm, and the infant bounces along. “That one! Do you see it?” I don’t even think Jessie can hear her, as the shrieks of the kids around him are loud and glorious, and the directives and frequent whistles of the coach are an encompassing hum.
Too distracted to read my book, I take out an old SuperCuts receipt and begin to write an idea for a children’s book that entered my mind on the way to the game. I look up in time to see Emmanuelle jogging towards me, in search of her water. The other kids are still running in droves toward the goal, the ball, a clandestine jewel hidden by pint-sized cleats, and we exchange pleasantries while she cools off. “I saw you kick the ball out there- you did great! It was almost a goal!” I lie, because the one kick I did see was more like a tap, but at least she can feel proud.
“I know!” she says, “I’m getting good!” and she runs back onto the field, into the sea of colors, her shoulders thrown back, oozing with confidence.
“Jessie, why would you do that? Get in the game! C’mon!” his dad screams, inching his chair into the playing field, as if by closer proximity, his son will absorb his ideas better. Jessie doesn’t look up, doesn’t wave, doesn’t even pause for water. He just keeps on running after the errant ball, desperate for his foot to make the gratifying thunk with the inflated leather, desperate for his parents to approve.
I would like to ask these people to lower their voices. I would like them to allow their child to play the game, to make his own decisions, to have a fun time. I want some peace and quiet so I can attempt to write my book. I glance over at them, the words unfurling at my lips, but pause, as I fear I too will be victimized, yelled at and bullied. “Bad mother!” they will say, noticing how infrequently I watch the field. “Why are you even here?” And so I say nothing. But I do post about them on my facebook page, a silent and anonymous revenge that leaves me feeling smug.
“Two minutes left!” Jessie’s dad cries, his urgency evident by the way he is lunging from his fabric chair. He is nervous about the game, hoping his son gets some major goals, but me, I don’t even know the score. And then, in the middle of the rushing, the chaos, the scrambling children and wild ball, my daughter pauses, looks up at the blueness and clouds above, thrusting her hands skyward, and does a lopsided handstand in the middle of the field. A boy behind her follows suit, attempting the same gymnastic feat. It is as if I am watching a television show, and the wires have crossed, skipping into a scene from an entirely different program, from soccer to gymnastics, and you need to kick the tv to make it go back. But the children continue to play and a few seconds later, the whistle is blown, signaling that the game is over. I don’t even know who has won, but cheer along with the other, more involved, parents.
Emmanuelle happily runs off of the field, glowing from her exertion and a rare fall-sunburn. “Great game!” I say, and I mean it. She played. She participated. That’s all that I care about. “And what a good handstand you did there!”
She looks up at me, puzzled, her blue eyes registering the slightest bit of confusion. “That wasn’t a handstand,” she says, “that was a cartwheel!” I apologize for my mistake, and realize that maybe I should have been more hands-on when she took gymnastics, pressing my nose against the glass with the other moms. I smile to myself, pleased with her non-conformist ways, happy that my own days of flower-picking-during softball have somehow transferred to her. She has inherited my casual approach to sports, or maybe my own disinterest affects her, makes her think that intensity is only optional.
I feel “The Jessies” at my heels as we traipse across the muddy field, and I worry that they are planning to launch their speech, to criticize me for not properly training my daughter in sports decorum. I try to rush Emmanuelle, to pull her along with my hurried gait, but she lags a few feet behind. And as the family loudly brushes past us, making a beeline for the ice cream truck, my daughter pauses to dip the toe of her sequined sneaker into a mud puddle.