If you are a parent, one of your primary jobs seems to be serving as a witness to the lives of your children. I’ve witnessed a lot. Although if you ask my youngest son, he will tell you I missed one preschool field trip to the apple orchard and ALL the other moms were there and he was completely and utterly alone. So-we both have to live with that failure.
So far, my children have participated in what feels like 1,000 school, church and extra curricular activities that include t-ball, soccer, football, dance, choir, scouting, orchestra, cross country, knowledge bowl, and a few others I have blocked from my mind.
A lot of it has been fun. Some of it has been not so fun. Some of it has been downright irritating. I’m not a great spectator because I lack a fiery competitive spirit and yet am sitting amongst the superfans. I don’t care who wins. I don’t get any great thrill when one team wins over the other or when one person beats out all the others. When I watch the Olympics, and I LOVE the Olympics, I fall in love with the personal back story of all the athletes. I will always root for the person with the toughest personal history every time. I will pray for the athlete with a compelling twist in their journey where they almost didn’t make it to compete after years of effort. I will root for the athlete who tells a story about how his mom drove him to practice for 15 years without complaint. (maybe I’m rooting for her) But I’m not a great spectator. My cheers are very vague, “Oh go YOU!”
Until I discovered my love of spectating at cross country meets.
At most kid sporting events, you can hear spectators cheering/yelling at the kids, yelling at the coaches, yelling at each other. There is lots of yelling. More yelling than cheering sometimes. It took up all my yelling energy just to get everyone clean, packed, dressed, fed and in the car and at the destination on time. I suspect by the time we arrive at the event, I’m all done with yelling. It’s time for me to sit in my chair with an iced tea. But I can hear a lot of other parents that have plenty left in the tank to scream on the sidelines. Calling plays. Making position suggestions. Lamenting the amount of play time doled out to their kid. Complaining about the referees’ ability, a particular call, their age. Screaming at their own kid to PUSH themselves. Reminding their kid (loudly) that they will get ice or or $5 or other such incentives if they score. I heard a coach on an opposing soccer team tell his team, “Swarm them like angry bees. Swarm them!”
Dance is no better. Studio dance culminates with a recital. There is a quiet subversive chatter at those events. Kids didn’t get the part they wanted. Kids got put in the back that should have been in the front. Wrong kids featured. Kid with poor attendance got the lead. Music choice sucked. Recital is too long. Teacher wasn’t good so choreography is too hard/too easy/too jazzy/too old/too young/too much. (I should know the teacher critiques-I taught dance for years.) I love watching dance. But even I find it difficult to watch a 3 hour recital where I can see 2 minutes of my child after they have put in a year of instruction.
I watched competitive dance this year for the very first time. That’s a whole new world. It’s not your mother’s dance team. There are some phenomenal dancers on high school dance teams. Seven, eight, nine consecutive pirouettes. Please. I bow down to you. However, I sat next to a mom who clapped when a student on a different team fell down. Seriously. She clapped. She followed it up with verbally blasting her own daughter because she missed a turn. We can’t be friends now. Ever.
Music. Generally not too bad. Choirs is virtually painless. Orchestra? It’s almost an endurance test in the early years. Have you heard a 9 year old try to play the violin? I have. Two different kids. Please no. No. My daughter has played for 6 years now. I have to say…it didn’t sound like music until 7th grade. That was year FOUR for those of you keeping track. Even at the music concerts there is chatter about private lessons, what ensemble group to audition for next year, who got the solo, first chair, practice habits. I’m coming clean. Kids in this house-they didn’t get in their 5,438 minutes of music each week. Never. Math comes before music. I can’t fight ALL the battles. I’m only 1/4 Chinese rendering me virtually useless when it comes to being a Tiger Mother.
Knowledge Bowl. Have you witnessed this craziness? Hundreds of kids from everywhere battling it out to answer questions like, “In what dystopian novel could you find the quote ‘We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought'”? Buzzers are rung all over the room while I try to think of more than one dystopian novel. Wow. By the way…It’s from Fahrenheit 451. These kids are middle schoolers who are well versed in Bradbury. I was reading the Sweet Valley High Series in 6th grade. Those crazy Wakefield twins and their romances NEVER said anything deep or memorable and I liked it that way. Hundreds of parents are walking up and down the hallways watching kids answer questions and discussing how their school runs practice, what teams are the best, and other things I’m not interested in.
This brings me to Cross Country. Watching cross country is my thing. Finally, I’ve found my sport. Truth be told-I cried at nearly every meet. Cried. This is why. It’s all outside at a school on (mostly) lovely fall days for about an hour. They run in huge groups divided up by grade and gender. I can pick out a couple of kids I know in the blur that go by but I’m keenly watching for my son who is fairly easy to pick out since he refuses to wear actual running shorts because (“Mom-they are insanely short”)
On both sides of the course, the spectators watch and wait and cheer. And everyone cheers and claps and smiles. For everyone. I learned some things from the high school runners who were there watching the younger kids. They yell, “Pace yourself!” “Pass a couple!” “You’ve got this!” “Go go go!” “Finish strong!” Now I say those things. I can belt out a really good “pass a couple”-it’s such a reasonable cheer for a non-competitive person. And when they are finished…many of the runners go back to cheer on those behind them…their teammates and those who are competing against them. And some of the kids have buddy runners who run with them and encourage them to keep going and to finish. This makes me cry every time. The kids who need the extra help giving it everything they have and the kids who are giving the extra help giving it everything they have make me cry in equal measure. And everyone cheers those kids on until the very last one crosses the line.
This. This is what appeals to my deepest sense of what I think is right and important about athletics. Participation. Being part of a larger team. Belonging to the group. Get out there and do something and try even if you are not first, or second, or twelfth. Do this with joy. Do we not all benefit when everyone crosses the finish line? The pure joy of participation is not exclusively owned by the winners.
Next up for my professional spectator role: Track!? My son said he would like to try track. I said, “Great. I’ll sign you up. What made you decide to try track?” He said, “It sounds fun. It’s all the cross country kids.” I hope he does his very best. I hope someone in front of him is pulling for him and mostly I hope he turns around at the finish line to root for anyone still running.
I plan on swarming them all with cheers. An encouragement swarm. Finish strong!