When I was young, before the invention of electronic games, before toddlers perched in front of their own computers, back when moms didn’t seem to worry about sending kids outside unsupervised, I was a little athlete.
Correction. I had no promise of an athletic career, no innate ability, and was no match for my older siblings -– two brothers and a well-coordinated, determined older sister. But like most kids, I’d come home after school, have a quick snack and Mom would send me out to play. “Out to play” meant bikes, tag, stick ball, and anything else that involved physical activity. It was fun, and decades before my brain would register any internal sense of competition – unlike today, when young girls already know how to outscore the next kid on the balance beam.
But all that changed in junior high gym class. Competition was king, in team and individual sports. Nothing like being scored to help one relax and do her best.
We’d show up for gym class wearing our humiliatingly dorky 1930s-style blue gym outfits. Then we were paired into teams by our gym teacher.
“OK, listen up!” she’d bellow, “Count off when I point to you. One or two, OK? Listen, people. One or two. Repeat – One,” and glaring at our least intellectually gifted classmates who were sneaking lip gloss from their bras, “OR TWO.”
Sometimes, team captains were appointed to choose teammates. That was painful and depressing, as I had a neurotic need to be nice and to be liked. But being nice had no effect on being a welcomed member of a team. Everyone knew who was or wasn’t an asset. The fact that I would regularly let the bully girls cut in front of me on the cafeteria line, in the name of peace and love – it was the 1960s – made no difference. I was a klutz, a trait I’d inherited from my wonderful mother, who used to dance around the living room to Broadway tunes and the well-earned, hysterical laughter of us kids.
The core of the competitive, war-like mentality our educators were trying to instill was the pinnie, a colorful red bib/vest that one team wore, which covered the top of the uniform. We had to figure out not only what to do with the ball, but make sure we passed it to the right person amid a bunch of aggressive pre-menses 12-year-olds. A “Shirt” did not give a “Pinnie” the ball. Even if she was your best friend. I was nervous. As play began, the teacher would coach, in her outside voice, “Pinnies! Go THAT way,” and “No, Eliscu! SHE’S A SHIRT!” I’m sure our teachers meant to teach us good sportsmanship and respect, but it always boiled down to the pinnie. Who was winning? Pinnies or Shirts? Shirts? Pinnies? I heard nothing about strategy or technique, no inspirational words, just “Pinnies! OVER HERE.”
I dreaded gym, save for one short month a year of folk dancing. It leveled the playing field and I liked music. And there were no pinnies.
I’d never be an Olympic athlete, unless whining became a sport. But later, in adulthood, I could play a mean game of ping-pong and shoot hoops with my kids in our driveway.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew there was more to it. Being a female athlete was a tough scene for those who wanted to make a career of it, which I didn’t. When I opened the sports section of the paper to check baseball standings, a habit left over from having brothers, I’d find precious little that wasn’t male. I started reading, reflecting on what gym class had left out.
Like multi-talented Babe Didrikson Zaharias who, from a poor immigrant family, broke through female stereotypes to become an amazing 20th-century athletic star of basketball, track and field, and most prominently, golf, setting all-time records.
Or Cathy Rush, the 1970s girls basketball championship coach at Immaculata University, who paved the way for young female athletes everywhere, at all levels of athleticism, in all walks of life, through perseverance and dignity – not only on the court, but also later in her personal victory over breast cancer.
And Wilma Rudolph, a 41?2-pound premie born into a poor, hardworking black family in Tennessee, with minimal access to health care. One of 22 children, she suffered serious childhood illnesses including polio, which left her left leg twisted. Doctors said she’d never walk again. Through sacrifice, drive and hard work beyond imagination, she went on to excel in basketball and track and field, becoming the first American woman ever to win three gold medals at the Olympics. Considered the “fastest woman in history” in the 1960s, Rudolph broke through gender and racial barriers in many areas of life.
I read of perseverance, dignity, and love of sport. Of overcoming obstacles, fighting hard to pursue their sport, paving the way for those who came after them. I read of their lives and what inspired them.
And not once did I see a thing about pinnies.
Kathy Eliscu is a nurse and freelance writer who lives in Westbrook. She credits her way of looking at the light side of life to her mother, the late Marge Eliscu, whose “Coffee Break” humor column ran for two decades in the Maine Sunday Telegram