Brett Llewellyn comes to mind. On a clouded day, Brett Llewellyn stood on the field in the schoolyard. He was a freckled lanky boy with a conservative cut of red hair. He cradled a football, helmet-less. After a whistle, his red hair jostled as he dipped, faked left, and ran. He wore no team uniform—a light blue polo shirt. Blue flags flew behind him as he entered the end-zone. Grass, mostly crab and clover, upturned under his sneakers, while boys all around him with yellow flags dove. Still, he eluded them.
A few weeks later, a sign-up sheet appeared on the P.E. office door for fall sports. I decided to put my name on the tryout lists for the boys’ flag football team, knowing it wasn’t technically allowed at my parish Catholic school.
A group of classmates surrounded me as I wrote my name on the sign-up sheet hung on the door of the P.E. supply room.
“You can’t do that!” Chris R. shouted. “That’s the boys’ team. Can’t you tell you’re a girl?”
“Why would you want to play football?” Stephanie Clark complained with her popped hip of condescension.
“I want to play too,” another girl said, and she stepped up to put her name on the list.
I received other snickers and side-eyes for the rest of recess, but the controversy seemed to die down by the end of lunch. Kids have short attention spans for scandal, but though my classmates seemed to forget about the act, I didn’t. I was nervous. I had never played football before, but my intent was steadfast. I wanted to do something my school hadn’t allowed girls to do before.
Someone must have called my parents that night. Told them about what I did.
“Why do you want to play?” my mother asked at the dinner table.
“Because I don’t want to play volleyball,” I told her.
My father stayed out of it. He rolled his eyes, took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and went to stand on our back patio while my mother spoke to me.
I didn’t know how to explain it to her exactly, how to articulate what I knew intuitively; it wasn’t fair that we couldn’t just be allowed to play with the boys if we were equal to them. That if you taught that girls could do anything, you should let them do anything. I wanted to prove that I could. I wanted to make a change, make a difference. I wanted, at the very least, to call out what seemed so carefully unaddressed.
Mom kept on, “But you could get hurt, playing football, something could happen to your ovaries.” Which made me think her stupid. I knew enough to see the flaw in her anatomical argument. She had joked before with other moms before about how much smaller boys are than girls at that age. Boys have penises on the outside of their bodies, yet no one was concerned with damage to their reproductive abilities. I imagined a big girl named Angela towering over Brett Llewellyn on the field and accidently kicking him in the balls as she plucked the football out of his hands and ran.
But it was of no use. I was used to this shoddy logic, and there was no arguing with my mother when she took to this kind of explanation. I felt betrayed by her ignoring what was obvious.
To say I was passionate about football would be a lie. I had a sense even then that I was playing some kind of performance of a feminist. The appeal of the football team lay mainly in my unjust exclusion from it.
This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I’m not a religious person now, but I was a stone-cold Catholic then and Joan of Arc was my hero. She was my perennial choice for “Saint Reports.” As part of my presentation that year, I carried a cardboard flag and sword, donned construction paper armor, tied my hair up to mimic her shorn locks.
Glossing over every historical inaccuracy I know now, I presented to the class, “Joan of Arc was directed by God through three different saints to dress like a man and lead France to victory.”
I wanted to mimic more than her hair, I want to mimic her courage. If Joan of Arc could win a war in medieval France, couldn’t I could play flag football?
About a week later, there was a meeting called by the Arch Diocese to discuss if girls were allowed to play flag football at parish schools. Apparently, my school hadn’t been the only one with Catholic girls to ever have such a wild desire.
That whole week I had been hopeful. The two other girls that wanted to play seemed like an unlikely trio. Lydia, a small skinny pretty thing with too many brothers to pretend she was just small and skinny; Angela, the big girl we were all afraid to piss off but always picked first for teams; and me, bookish, enthusiastic, and generally a rule-follower.
I was called into the principal’s office to have meeting with my principal, Sr. Marie, an ancient nun, and our vice principal, Mrs. O’Donnell. The office was well-appointed compared to the rest of the school. There was a large blond wood desk and plush beige carpeting. Framed awards and photographs lined the walls. The room was dim, the slats of the wide mini-blinds were pulled shut. I had only ever been in there once before to deliver a note from my teacher two years before. In front of the desk, there were three cushioned chairs across from the door where Sr. Marie sat on the left and Ms. O’Donnell next to her. I sat in the chair across from them that was so much bigger than me, I felt I had shrunk.
Mrs. O’Donnell was a stern lady, spoke to everyone with the same tone of voice she spoke to the class of kindergartners that she taught: drawn out words in the form of instructions, no elaboration, no explanations, no patience for discussion.
She began to speak and I can’t remember if she said anything before she said, “We know your parents told you about the Diocese’s meeting and it was announced that each school could choose what they thought was best. Sr. Marie feels it’s best, and I agree, that we will not be allowing girls to play football. If you’d like can still tryout for volleyball.”
I looked to the old woman on the left who was as small as I was.
“Why not?” I pressed, trying to be defiant, but slowly starting to cry, my response to frustration even now. I don’t whine or wail, it’s just that tears start to flow to my eyes and my voice starts to tremble, at best an annoying weakness.
I stared at Sr. Marie even as the other responded, “We feel it’s a matter of you getting hurt.”
I was crushed by their complete stonewall of my ambitions. My throat was thick with fear, but I told them what feels powerful even now.
“I’ve lost faith in you, in this school, and the church. I’ve lost faith.” I cried in front of these women, these gatekeepers. I hated them for watching me cry. I hated them for not reacting to what I was saying. They just stared and handed me tissues.
I imagined yanking off Sr. Marie’s habit, cutting off her pale blue dress with my left-handed scissors. I wanted to expose whatever matronly undergarments she wore. What right did a woman like her have in educating modern girls? I wanted her to feel the humiliation she was so desperately trying to avoid for herself and forcing on me.
Then there was her counterpart, Mrs. Donnell, such a loud and mean woman, always in some kind of blouse and long A-line skirt. I imagined even at that age that she had a giant mole, just above her vagina, and I wanted to stab it.
“Go wash your face and go back to class.” This was their only consolation. “Then send in Angela.”
That was all they could say for themselves. It seems weird that they had that meeting at all. I can’t imagine telling a child something like that. Why not leave it up to my parents to break the bad news? Let them figure out a way to put it easily. They could’ve made it seem like they had no control and we could’ve wallowed together in the unfairness of it all. Instead, I felt like I had done something wrong just for asking to be treated as an equal to my male classmates.
Maybe they wanted to fight the crusade head on, because I think what they saw in my desire to play football was a signpost of my bi-sexuality. Something I couldn’t even see back then. By denying me and other girls the chance to play football, perhaps they thought they could suppress what was ultimately inevitable. One of the other girls who wanted to play was queer as well. Maybe by just being myself, I was more of a threat than I could have known.
What I didn’t do was play football on the co-ed park team.
“If you really wanted to play football, you’d play wherever they let you,” my mother explained. “You’re just trying to be different.” This accusation has been repeated innumerably over the years, as if wanting to be different was universally a bad thing. She would tell me that for anything as small as liking a black choker—it was the 90s—to going to NYU for college.
In turn, rage was born out of the hypocrisy of the entire experience. We had girl altar servers and a woman principal, why not girls playing flag football? How could something so clearly unjust not be repaired? I didn’t understand why more adults didn’t see it my way, in a lot of ways I still don’t. The effect of this was that these people lost me to something beyond their horizons. I was transformed into a daughter that their world was too small to serve.
What’s important to know, what I realize now, is that it was a chorus of women—not one man—who stood in my way, trying to convince me not to want what I wanted. Perpetuating the patriarchal example that I’m sure had been set down in their own lives; how they rationalized that to themselves, I can only speculate. Maybe it was important to them to teach girls how to not step out of bounds. Perhaps setting the bar lower would protect me and the other girls from future disappointment. The sense of betrayal that rushes in when considering any of these possibilities mirrors so much of how I feel when I look at the news today. How are women still doing these things to each other?
I care so much for that little girl, my 11 or 12-year-old self. Wanting so much to participate in ideals and principles, and then learning that the world doesn’t much care for your ideals, even though that’s what those in control claimed to teach. I hold her bright ambitious body in my mind like you’d comfort any child. I grieve for that sense of idealism I no longer possess. What world would we have if we didn’t suppress those instincts?
The result is that I learned how to cast-off any rule that doesn’t serve me. I graduated from the small-minded world that likes to think I’m a prodigal daughter. Fled left for cities that drew me in and sent me soaring higher. There will always be obstacles; needing no permission, I fight them on my own—dipping, faking left, and running towards the end zone.
About the Author: Christina Gardner is a fiction and personal essay writer, living and working in San Francisco. Her work focuses on examining the female experience in the global corporate workforce. You can find her work featured on XoJane and the Minetta Review.
Artist bio: Alison Moncrieff lives in Oakland, CA and paints in her basement, which is just that side of water tight. Her painting style is probably called abstract or intuitive, involving right now mostly-empty dresses, unrealistic birds, common symbols & words. For Alison, painting is a visceral, playful thing. It brings her joy, and she hopes to pay that forward. She is currently working on the #paintfeelloveheal project (@alimoncrieffpaints on Instagram), a yearlong painting practice to grow a habit of creative production and to connect with people. For more about Alison’s painting, visit www.alisonmoncrieff.com.