If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.
Or maybe not.
I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.
Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable.
I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.
I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.
Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.
This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards.
Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on.
The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really.
The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.
You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.
Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd.
During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.
My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood.
But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.
I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know.
As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world.
It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.
Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.
A Letter to My Bully