Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 21 2013

Life Lessons from Basketball

Last weekend was our last elementary school basketball tournament. Our boys had some issues, because they are actually way more sensitive than our girls. This happened last year too. When the girls encounter difficulties, they toughen up and prove they aren’t scared by playing harder. It takes a lot more to break our girls. The boys, on the other hand, get down by two points and they fall apart and give up. It’s very frustrating. So they did their fall-apart and ended up in 5th place. Oh well.

But our girls did awesome. They won every game until Saturday night, when we were playing a VERY tough team that has been undefeated all season. We’d lost to them 5 times before, and every game was aggressive and sometimes nasty. In our last game against them, four of their girls ganged up on one of our smallest players and when the dust settled, her thumb was dislocated. She popped it back in, cried for a while, iced it, taped it, and went back in in the fourth quarter. These girls are tough.

So we are playing this team, and they get off to an early lead. Their coach puts in the girls who don’t usually get to play as much. But the refs are calling a very loose game, so the girls start playing really aggressively. Unfortunately, when you’re one of those girls who doesn’t play as much, aggressive doesn’t mean good basketball, it means you’re hurting people. One of our girls got punched in the stomach so hard she puked. Another got shoved down right on her head and had to be carried off the court. We’re mad, our girls are reaching their breaking point, and the parents are going nuts, in a bad way. Finally, one of their girls jumps for the ball, right into one of my girls who has it. Her teeth slam into my player’s face, and her braces leave little train tracks across my girl’s eye, which immediately puffs up like a balloon. This is ridiculous. They’re 10 years old, for heaven’s sake. I almost pushed to forfeit rather than be maimed, but that would kill our players, so we toughed it out and lost by 6 points. We were tired, we were pissed, and the girls were more than a little broken, emotionally and physically.

On Sunday we had to beat another team just for the chance to play this aggressive team again. Twice. Before our first game of the day, we gathered the girls in a circle in the lobby. It’s just us coaches, the girls, and all the moms and grandmas that come to every game. No boys in sight. And in a totally unplanned, spur-of-the-moment thing, one by one we go around the circle, with every adult telling all the girls how proud they are of them. One mom gives actual basketball advice: watch out for fast breaks, play good defense. Another tells them to be tough, never let anyone see you cry, just do your best every minute. A grandma gives life advice: you girls are playing hard because you love it. Never forget that the point is to be having fun with your friends, doing your best and enjoying it. You work hard for what is important to you. Most moms just say how proud they are of how hard the girls are working, and how they kept trying and kept fighting yesterday even when nothing was going their way. It is such a beautiful circle of three generations of women showing their love, urging their daughters to be strong, to work hard, and to never stop trying. Yes, they’re only 10 years old, but they’re learning lessons in basketball that they can use for their whole lives. Today might be about making that layup, but tomorrow it’s about fighting through poverty, staying in school, and supporting their families. And here are those families today, telling them they love them, showing them they will always be there.

We didn’t win the tournament. We beat that aggressive team once (the only game they’ve lost all season, by the way) and then they beat us again for the championship and we took second. But I am so proud of our girls for the way they played. They played with class and they treated their opponents with respect. And they worked their absolute hardest, every minute till the end.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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