Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Ass-Kicking Heroines (and other women I have known)

Once - long, long, ever-so-long ago - I was a high school student. Now, I've written before about my insufferable dorkiness, and my loneliness, and the fact that I was out of step, out of rhythm and generally odd. But what I haven't blogged about was about my athleticism - and how my experience as an athlete changed how I thought about myself, how I thought about my body, and how it changed who I am as a writer now.

For a little context, though, let me tell you a little about the high school I went to: it looked like a prison. I say this without hyperbole or histrionics. My high school was designed by the same guy who designed the state prison in Stillwater, Minnesota. It had almost no windows - and those it had were narrow little strips of cloudy plexiglass that let in precious little natural light. It was built from slab upon slab of dull brown concrete, reinforced by steel. Inside, the rooms were lit by harsh, flickering florescent lights, and the doors could be locked from the outside in case of "emergencies"  - though we were never told what, in the opinion of the powers that be, constituted an "emergency". The student body was dynamic, involved and diverse in almost every respect - by economics, by race, by first-languages, by immigration status. We were one of the first high schools in America to offer four years of Native American language study (Dakota/Lakota and Ojibwe), and the first high school to have a Hmong student association. As a white person, I was a minority - an experience that precious few white people get to have in this country, much to their detriment, if you ask me. As a student body, we had all kinds of differences, but there was an over-arching spirit of comraderie and unity that sought to see the differences in our community as part of our strength - and we celebrated it.

However, there were problems. The school itself was situated in a neighborhood that found itself the unwitting setting for a gang turf war. Gunshots were commonplace - not inside the school, but we could hear them nonetheless. My freshman year, one of my classmates was shot in the belly at a party - he was wearing the wrong colors, apparently. (He lived, though barely) My sophomore year, my principal, upon learning that two rival gangs were facing off in the street in front of the school, was hit over the head with a crow-bar, and was brought in, blood streaming down his face, right in the middle of lunch.

To top it off, the parks (not to mention the vacant houses) nearby were riddled with crime - drugs, prostitution and some terrible attacks against women. The girls in my high school were given dark and sinister warnings about Places Where We Could Not Go and Things We Should Never Wear In Public and Things That We Must Never Do.

But then I became an athlete. And then everything changed.

To be scared of the world around you is to relinquish your personal power. There is something heady and marvelous about snatching that power back. I joined the cross country team. I got strong. I got fast. I was by no means the fastest kid on the team, but I was Varsity, could run a mile in five and a half minute, and could bench my own weight. I could beat boys bigger than me in arm wrestling matches and  hip check hockey players when they got fresh.

My body became an instrument of power - and I was drunk on it.

My friends were athletes too, and we took it as a point of pride to scorn any and every bit of safety advice that our teachers had given us. We ran in the dark. We ran through alleys and tough neighborhoods. We re-designed our routes to take us to the places where bad things had recently happened.

Bring it on, we were saying to the world. You mess with us and we will take you down. We will mess you up, then we will run ten miles. We are unbeatable, unstoppable, uncatchable. 

And the thing is: we believed it.

And nothing bad ever happened, though I wonder what would have happened if it did. I wonder how we would respond to the intersection of our perception of our own power and the harsh reality of true violence. Clearly, we lived in a fantasy of our own making, but despite the fact that we took some stupid, stupid risks, I feel like we deserved to feel that way. We deserved to be bad-ass. We deserved to be heroines.

And we deserved, for just a little while, to feel that sense of unchecked power.


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