Before there were Amos and Otis and their college athletic scholarships; and before there was my sister (“The Hot One”) and her athletic prowess that earned her a spot on the Junior Varsity soccer team the first year she ever hit a soccer ball; but sometime after my father, the college football player, came to be, there was Jules.
Flat-footed, near-sighted, and unable to leave the house during ragweed season little Jules.
But what I lacked in gross motor skills I made up for in spelling skills, an early love of soap operas, and a knack for winning cakes at the annual grade school carnival. And so my mother insisted they keep me.
By eighth grade, however, I decided to expand my horizons beyond my inhaler and Judy Blume collection, and try out for my school’s volleyball team.
I remember running warm-up laps around the gym, feeling plenty warm halfway around the first lap but being told there was no quit in warm-up, or something like that. I remember the sting of the ball on my forearms and wondering if there were any positions that wouldn’t involve direct contact with the ball. But more than anything, I remember that I made the B squad for our Catholic school’s CYO team.
I was thrilled.
I was an idiot.
I was out of my league.
But, like the saints and martyrs we were taught to emulate at Queen of All that is Good and Holy School, I persevered. The torturous season lasted six weeks (three jammed fingers, one pair of broken glasses, and two menstrual cycles).
Fortunately, I do not remember most of the games. In fact, I had blocked out nearly every play that ever involved me.
Until last week, when my darling middle child, Amelia unwittingly dragged me into reliving one of my most horrific moments of Junior High, as her own CYO volleyball team hosted a Parents vs. Fifth-Graders scrimmage in celebration of their last practice.
(Before I continue I must add that I voluntarily hosted an ice cream party to celebrate the last week, but I must have pissed off karma at some point in a way chocolate delight and Redi-whip could not reconcile.)
Standing opposite the server, a beautiful 10-year-old girl who can already overhand serve like an Olympian, I found myself fighting the urge to curl up fetal as I immediately reverted back to the Great Disaster of ’85…
As usual, Coach had me start the game on the bench. After the other two girls had rotated in, Coach reluctantly called for me to take my place in the center of the back row. We were up 5-2 at the time.
St. Someone School’s player returned our serve with a spike to the empty spot in our side of the court, giving them the ball, which they served directly into the net.
We moved up, 6-3, rotated and served but lost the point, though it was not my fault.
And so it came to pass that I stood opposite the server, a girl who would go on to play college volleyball, but would first find herself with ample opportunity to refine her overhand serve.
Up 6-4, I put myself in the ready position (wringing my hands and praying) as she prepared to serve.
The ball came straight to me. I stared at it all the way to my upper arms, where it ricocheted into the crowd of horrified parents.
The ball raced toward me at a speed never before seen. (This was before the age of sports psychology, private trainers, and steroids, mind you.) I couldn’t imagine that ball was going to stay in bounds, so I let it fly by, thanking God for getting me out of that situation with grace and dignity.
Unfortunately the ball was in by three feet.
The ball whizzed by my head. Surely this one is out, I remember thinking as it, again, landed three feet in bounds.
6-7, St. Someone. And the pummeling continued.
Off my thumbs.
Bulldozed the six of ten fingers going for the set.
I one-handed it into the net.
Serve after painful serve flew directly to me. I gave it my all, which consisted of creating and then silently chanting a mantra to boost my self-esteem and hoping Coach would pull me out. It did not, however, consist of returning one single serve within the boundaries of the volleyball court.
Twenty-one points by one server. In a row. A new CYO record had been set, technically by both of us, though she was the only one honored for it.
And so 24 years later (ouch), as I faced off against my 10-year-old opponent at the parent-child scrimmage last week, I began the mantra that eventually got me through the Great Disaster of ’85:
“It’s okay, Jules, just remember. You would kick her butt in a spelling bee.”