When I was in sixth grade, my best friend was this wonderful girl named Amy. She was everything I wasn’t: adorable, petite, a snappy dresser…and a gifted gymnast. We were definitely the odd couple, me with my thick glasses and bad hair, awkward at best. Nevertheless, we were besties.
Gymnastics were very in at that time, and with Amy, who could do back flips and full splits, I found myself doing cartwheels on the front lawn. I never mastered a back walkover, but with Amy’s help, I improved a little bit.
Our gym teacher came up with the idea of having a gymnastics demonstration for the entire school. You’d have to audition to be in the demonstration; Mrs. Goldfarb didn’t want an afternoon of somersaults and ineptitude.
A word about Mrs. Goldfarb.
You may have noticed a few gym teachers in my books, and how they don’t like children. Mrs. Goldfarb, I’m looking at you.
She wore her whistle like a weapon. She was rail-thin and intolerant of awkward, overweight, bookish children (me, for example). We played dodgeball far too often, and we geeks often left gym class with red marks from balls whipped at our exposed legs and arms. She had no patience for the kids who weren’t athletically inclined, and indeed, often made fun of us.
In sixth grade, I was already five-foot-seven and wore a C cup bra. I towered over Mrs. Goldfarb, outweighed her, and already I knew that I would never be lean and athletic and coordinated. I felt incredibly wrong around her, with her cool stare and impatient voice. Auditioning to perform in front of the entire middle school? In a leotard? I’m getting hives just typing this.
But Amy was my friend, and very optimistic and upbeat about me participating (love you, Amy!). She helped me design a gymastics routine, and we practiced and practiced in my front yard after school for weeks. In the end, I still couldn’t do a back walkover, but I could do a diving somersault, and I thought that was pretty good.
The day of the auditions came. Amy was a shoe-in, obviously. Same with my friend Laurie, who could do a back and front walk-over. Mrs. Goldfarb called us girls to try out, watching with her shark-like eyes, and made notes on her clipboard. I waited and waited for my turn to audition. But the hour grew late, and finally, she blew her whistle and said, “That’s it. We’re out of time. We have too many people as it is.” Ten or twelve of us hadn’t auditioned yet.
In a rare show of spine, I left Mrs. Goldfarb a note, which I remember almost word-for-word still. “I practiced for weeks and you didn’t even give me a chance. THANKS A LOT!!! Kristan Higgins.” She came into the locker room while I was still there, read the note and looked at me. “Too bad,” she said. With that, she left.
When I got home, my mom asked how things went. “I didn’t get to try out,” I said, and burst into tears. “There were too many girls.”
My mom was then and is still a pretty mellow person. Her advice to her kids was generally, “Work it out.” She was as opposite a helicopter parent as could be. If she couldn’t see or hear us and we weren’t lying in a puddle of arterial blood, she’d assume we were fine. We played in the woods, talked to strangers, inflicted physical harm upon each other and rode bikes and horses without helmets. Mom didn’t care if we had a mean teacher, because our mean teachers weren’t as mean as the mean nuns shehad as a kid. If there was a bully on the school bus, we were told to avoid him. Fail a test? Study harder next time. I didn’t expect a lot of sympathy about the gymnastics things.
If I hadn’t made the cut, I think Mom would’ve patted my hand and told me “Good try.” But she’d seen me out there with my much more talented friend, working on those cartwheels and pikes. She knew exactly how untalented I was.
Without another word, Mom picked up the phone, called the school and proceeded to tear Mrs. Goldfarb another orifice. How dare she deprive a dozen girls the chance even to try? How was that fair? Her poor time management skills were her own problem. What kind of a message was she sending?
The next day, Mrs. Goldfarb did something completely unexpected. She apologized. Of course, every girl would get a chance to audition for the demonstration. There would be another afternoon of try-outs. It was her own mistake; she had underestimated the amount of interest, and she was very sorry if anyone felt bad. She met my eyes, and I knew: my gentle, funny, hippie-style mother had kicked some serious ass.
The rest of us got to audition. I made the cut. The day of the demonstration, my mom came to school and watched from the back. I was terrified (why had I wanted to do this? why?). When my turn came, I was pretty bad. Amy was magnificent.
As she drove me home, my mom said, “I thought you were the best one there.”
Thanks, Mom. Thanks for lying, but even more, thanks for sticking up for me.