And The First Will Be Last

This spun out of a light-hearted Facebook thread about being the odd girl out when we had to partner up in my exercise class yesterday. I didn’t really mind — the other women in the class all had “real” friends there, whereas I’m just the Tall Old Woman With Bad Clothes Who is Nevertheless Formidably Strong.

But then I remembered that the worst thing that ever happened to me, in all those years of being picked for teams and gym class square dance lessons, was being picked _first_. We had an influx of new kids in my fifth-grade class and one of the boys, deceived by my height, picked me for his handball* team. He really felt like he had gotten a pig in the poke when I acquitted myself in the usual way — pokey little hit that didn’t make it out of the infield, easily thrown to first base ahead of me. For some reason, that humiliation still burns in my memory, whereas all my other easy outs were just what were expected of me. Someone else, a stranger, had been convinced that I was athletic and I had dared to hope that he might be right, that he saw something in me that hadn’t been there before.

I was not an athletic kid. I couldn’t climb a tree or run swiftly. I couldn’t throw a ball correctly. I was mediocre at dodgeball. I couldn’t turn a cartwheel. Gym class loomed as the perpetual threat to my 4.0; luckily, the points awarded to written tests and participation edged me into A-minus territory. (It also helped that one semester was swimming, one of the few things I did well. I got my lifeguarding certificate when I was 16 and was a WSI at 17.) Oh, and in addition to swimming, I was actually pretty agile when it came to climbing rocks, of which there were several in our backyard, and I had excellent balance.

Still can’t throw. Still don’t run swiftly. Still can’t turn a cartwheel, although I was working my way toward a headstand in yoga when my arm problems became problematic. I am unusually strong, I think, for a woman my age, or else just flush with a wonderful delusion about my abilities. However, I do notice, in the various classes that I take, that I have more stamina than some much younger women.

Were you picked first, last or somewhere in between?

*In Baltimore, we played handball, not kickball, tossing the large red rubber ball up in the air the way one tosses a baseball during practice, then smacking it with our closed fist. Donald Wilson could send a ball an enormous distance this way, far, far into the outfield. We sometimes played kickball, too, but more often it was handball. I have no idea why.


21 thoughts on “And The First Will Be Last

  1. I got picked second or third to last, and it didn’t really bother me, probably because I was never the worst one in the room. I was seriously uncoordinated and slow, but still had decent hand/eye coordination. Unfortunately there where no darts teams when I was a kid! Two things I could do well were ride horses and swim, and I too got my lifesaving certification and played lifeguard for a few summers. OH, and there was one thing I could do in gym class that kind of baffles me now. I could climb that rope all the way to the top. Maybe because I was really skinny and all of my strength was in my legs.

  2. I totally identify with this! fish in water (grew up in FL) but generally get out of the way if there are balls flying about, needing to be caught and/or thrown…mostly for my own safety.
    on the other hand, I finally figured out what to do with my endurance. I run marathons. I don’t have to run fast, I just have to keep going (stubbornness helps, too…)and think of them as “revenge of the girl picked last”.
    btw - Laura - I am a longtime fan. thanks for letting me be a tiny part of your world!

  3. Always the last one to be picked for any team and it hasn’t changed. I exercise to full capacity and others are dancing all around me BUT I have endurance. And I don’t think I’d trade that for excellence.

  4. I read your FB post and it immediately brought back memories of my own childhood experiences. My hand/eye coordination was terrible and I could never hit a ball (but I never had that problem when it came to reading a book). I was consistently the second-to-last person getting picked for any team.

    In fairness to my athletic school friends, I not only lacked skill as a child, but also motivation. I have a distinct memory of playing soccer in gym class when I was eight years old and wondering what was the point of chasing a ball around a field? (This is rather ironic as I married a man who was on the provincial soccer team and competed nationally. One of my daughters is following in his footsteps. I now see the point of chasing a ball.) Like you, Laura, I excelled at swimming and I eventually became a good sailor.

    My competitive spirit did rear its head in my teens, but sadly, my hand/eye coordination never caught up. I have a marathon runner’s mindset but a body that had been described by my physio as the “Bionic Woman” - not for my formidable strength, alas, but for the number of injuries I’ve sustained in an effort to make up for lost time in my childhood. I continue to exercise every day and have adapted to make it work.

    Thanks for this post. Being unskilled at sports was always a source of humiliation for me as a child but it also taught me how to deal with rejection = inner strength.

  5. Oh yes, I was almost always last too, especially in the years before high school. I was big (5’8″ by the age of 10), awkward and badly coordinated and it always came down to me and the kid with downs syndrome, and she was more often picked than me. As a result I threw myself into individual sports like shot put and discus where size and strength were an asset. Mercifully my parents never told me I should get along or fit in with my peers, and when I hit high school and went to girls school I found that my size and strength were highly valued. I was always anchor of my house tug-of-war team and we were undefeated for the 4 years I was at the school. Even now as a very large and well padded woman I will admit to taking some pleasure in toasting young skinny women with looks of contempt at the gym, and there is also a certain pleasure in watching some dude hurt himself at a weight machine because he doesn’t want to be out lifted by some girl. After 40+ years of being a freak I guess it is something I have become comfortable with. Mind you, I am still horribly uncoordinated. My poor trainer is always pushing me hard to lift more and then watching me carefully in case I trip and fall!

  6. I ALWAYS got picked last in gym class. In fact, I like to think my lack of athletic ability remains legendary in the Michigan suburb where I grew up. I struck out at T-Ball — on a regular basis (the ball is literally sitting in front of you! How does one strike out?).
    It’s always haunted me, and I totally felt your pain when I read the yoga post. Some indignities take lifetimes to fade.

  7. This is interesting- I was often not picked at all (though I had no interest whatsoever in team sports and never participated when I wasn’t forced to), but like many of the commenters, I have always loved swimming. My town did not have a pool, so there was no competetive swimming, but I was in the water whenever possible (growing up in the PNW, it wasn’t all that often.) I used part of one of my book advances to buy an above ground pool a few years ago, and Terry rigged up a low-tech solar heater (submersible pump, 1200′ of black hose- the circulating water gets up to 90 deg on warm days), so I swim joyful laps every day in the summer time. It’s the only place where I feel graceful. I’m sure that I flail around ridiculously, but I think I’m Michael Phelps.

  8. There were only enough kids to play decent handball when I was at school. So we played in the parking lot in front, dressed in burgundy and grey wool plaid skirts and saddle shoes. Luckily, there are low expectations of performance when wearing Catholic school garb.

  9. What is it about swimming? Given the large number of writers revealing their secret swimming selves, I have to think the two things are related. Is it the way the mind gets to play underwater? I can still spend hours in the ocean on a good day, swimming sidestroke in order to keep an eye on the waves coming at me.

  10. I was always among the last picked. I dreaded gym class with true loathing. In fact, the first (and the only absolute) requirement on my list when chosing a college was that there was no phys ed requirement.

  11. Now my lack of writing output has been explained to me! I can’t swim. When I was young (8? 9?) and in summer day camp all day (I had a mother who, horrors, worked full time outside of the home and this was the 60′s), the camp counselors had me and the other beginning swimmers put our faces in the pond water and blow bubbles every day. After doing that for a couple of weeks, we were rowed out into the center of the pond, thrown over the side of the boat and told to swim back to shore. I was thrown over and promptly sunk, my eyes open,seeing the murky water and the sunlight filtering down from above. Someone jumped in and saved me. I have no memories of being back in the boat or what happened after that. But I never did learn to do more than dogpaddle around, but never in water deeper than I can stand up in.

    Gym class was so humiliating that I am not sure I can share those experiences. Even with all of you.

  12. I belong to the poor eye/hand coordination group, being picked last for everything except—- for some reason—-volleyball, which I played well.

    Have you noticed that only women are responding to this
    memory project? Do you suppose this is due to the male id?

  13. i’m the oldest woman in my 2 pilates and 1 yoga class that i go to each week. i can do most of the positions except the one where you raise your legs and hips and put your feet behind your head…not gonna happen. i also do water aerobics twice a week…but a few of the women in that class are older than me. i love the water…learned to swim in lake erie…also do the sidestroke, don’t want to get my hair wet, which is very long and takes forever to dry. hated gym class in high school…we had to wear those horrible 1 piece bloomer suits and high top shoes. i got my friendly doctor to write an excuse saying i couldn’t take gym. i got out of it, but no one believed i was unable to perform in gym…i looked too healthy, and i was healthy. if only our high school had had a pool, it would have been a different story!

  14. Definitely near last. I was always the youngest in my classes, and usually near the smallest, and always, always, always a slow runner. Not particularly coordinated, but good at swimming and some things involving aim (archery, shooting, ping pong, …) of which there were not many in school.

    After I left high school I grew. But I still run slow.

  15. Totally. In third grade we had a substitute gym teacher who saw my long legs and picked me right away as a kickball superstar. For a moment, I thought this day, with this sub, could be a new beginning for me and gym class. I still remember how disappointed he was with my first time at the plate, when he learned what our regular gym teacher had already discovered: I am just not good with flying objects, speed or structured, competitive activities.

  16. “Were you picked first, last or somewhere in between?”

    You know, a semi-unrelated question (so to speak) that this made me ponder is:

    In relationships, have you more often been the dumpER, or the DumpEE? And - which would you prefer?

    Thinking back, it surprised me a little to recollect that more often (way, way back, in the old days) I was the dumpER.

    But indeed, if I ever had to go through such a thing again (and I sincerely hope that day will never come) I’d much rather be the dumpEE.

    One’s role as dumpEE is well-defined (exit gracefully), and all the onus for advancing the narrative falls on the other person.

  17. Not picked last or first ….what resonated was the pressure of being picked first. I was friends with the athletic ones and every once in a while would do something that seemed amazingly talented. Then I’d get picked close to the top or put on the “A” team until they figured out it pretty much was a fluke.

    I run now. It’s all up to me and I do ok. I like running and training with friends. It’s all up to me, though, when it comes to doing a 10k, half or full marathon and that’s perfect. Try yoga but mostly now it’s about setting small goals for myself (like doing a back bend again- simple and doable, a good new years resolution). Wish I’d done more individual sports as a kid!

  18. Guess I am the odd ball-I was picked middle of the pack. Not good, not bad- in grade school. In High School things changed bottom of barrell- except for volleyball. In high school I learned how to serve so well that I was picked first all the time. We played coed after awhile and had alot of Puerto Rican influx-they played a whole lot better than us pure white girls!(no stereotypes-this was 72-76 and influx immigration from PR to MA had just started). Got to point that I really looked forward to it. Then we went to basketball-forget it! Couldnt’ dribble and rub at the same time and rules didnt’ make sense!

  19. Had just two tricks. I could sink a basketball from half court-but in the day when women could only play half court. I was good at gymnastics-the rings and the horse. Other than that-not so much. Lousy swimmer, would never run after a ball, feared getting hit in the head.
    I still sink my socks into my laundry basket every night. From the bed to the basket may not be half a court but I am growing old.

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