When I was in fifth grade, I decided to quit gymnastics. Every day I grew more tired of the intense conditioning at the end of every practice, mandatory attendance in order to keep my spot on the competitive team, and constant haranguing from coaches who gave me unwanted nicknames like "Raggedy Ann" and whose manner of instruction tended more toward berating than encouraging. I spent 15-20 hours a week at the gym with the same handful of girls, and while I liked everyone on the team, seeing the same faces all the time started to lose its luster as other social options presented themselves. I wanted to go to sleepovers and birthday parties with school and church friends. I loved dance and wanted more time to spend at the ballet studio. So I told my mom I wanted to quit.
My mom wasn't an athlete, neither as a child nor an adult. She dabbled in Jazzercise and jogging, and a few years prior to my telling her I wanted to quit gymnastics, she played on a co-ed softball team with other people from the hospital where she worked. Her flirtation with team sports evaporated as her affair with one of the guys on the team solidified; by the time I decided to quit gymnastics, they had both divorced their respective spouses in order to marry each other and create a family out of two tribes of children and a lot of broken promises. Watching the lot of us fumble through life must have been like watching a grotesque caricature of the Brady Bunch--everything over-exaggerated and out of balance as we tried to project the fiction of a smiling, harmonious blended family.
(I know healthy, supportive blended families do exist. However, the one in which I found myself was the diseased fruit of a diseased vine in a time before people had any real appreciation for how hard it is to merge the remnants of a violent disruption like death or divorce. We never had a chance.)
So Mom had more pressing things on her mind than whether or not I continued with an expensive, demanding sport. I'm sure it cost her more than just money to keep me on that team. She lined up carpools to and from practice with my grandparents and other team families; the monthly fees always got paid somehow, whether the money came from her pocket or my dad's; I always had the right uniform and the kind of grips and floor shoes everyone else had; she took me to meets and exhibitions on weekends when I know she had other things to do. She never pushed or pressured me, and she didn't play the role of "gymnastics mom" (or "dance mom" at my ballet studio), but she made sure I could participate at the level I wanted without making me feel guilty for demanding so much time and effort. Still, it wasn't hard for her to say yes to letting that activity go.
I went back and forth about the decision for quite awhile before actually pulling the plug, but eventually I told Mom that yes, I was sure, I wanted to quit. The payment schedule imposed some pressure to tie up all the loose ends before the end of the month, and the team contract required written notice of any changes. Mom wrote a letter, and I bit my lower lip and nodded as she asked me one more time before sealing the envelope and dropping it in the mail--irretrievable, irrevocable, a done deal. We lived in a small town, so I knew the receptionist would receive the note the following morning, which was also the last day of the month.
We drove away from the mailbox, and I sighed, feeling free and light and planning to celebrate the next evening by watching all the TV shows I usually missed because of practice. I felt a small twinge thinking of my friends on the team moving on without me, but that quickly faded in my gratitude at the knowledge I would never have to face those self-satisfied, bitchy coaches ever again. The one who taunted me by shaking my legs and calling me "Loosey Goosey" as I stood in handstands during strength exercises; the one who forced me to do a floor routine to the Miami Vice theme song because I missed the practice when everyone else picked the good music; the one who walked around with a sawed-off broom handle he referred to as the "Strength Stick" (or "Steve's Stick"--there are some things I've blocked from my memory) and used to correct our form: none of them were outright abusive or inappropriate, and they could be kind on occasion. But the waves of disapproval emanating from them made some critical piece of myself shrink, curl inward, and hibernate until I went home at the end of practice.
I skipped through the next day, though I couldn't quite meet the eye of my best friend on the team who also went to the small private school I attended. I didn't say anything about quitting because I knew it would become obvious later that night without me having to initiate an awkward conversation, but my cheeks burned a little bit when she wanted to talk about practice at recess. When the last bell rang, I hopped into the car with my grandfather and thought about how quickly I could finish my homework and turn on the TV.
That lasted until we got home when he turned to me and said, "I'll wait out here while you go change for gymnastics." I thought I hadn't heard him right, or maybe Mom hadn't told him. As I started to protest, he held up a hand and said, "Now listen, your mom said you have to go. You are done with the team as of tomorrow when it's the first of the month, but you have one more practice left this month, and you're going."
He gave me a look that communicated the futility of arguing, so I changed and grabbed my bag. My stomach churned on the drive to the warehouse-looking building that would no longer be my home away from home, and I kicked myself for my earlier optimism. Of course it wouldn't be that easy. I should have known better.
When I walked into the lobby, it was like someone jerked the needle off a record in the middle of a song. Conversations stopped, heads turned, and I swallowed hard as I walked the gauntlet through the observation area to the entrance to the gym. The receptionist looked me up and down and said, "We got your mom's letter." I nodded and kept going, back straight and nose up in the air in my best attempt to be haughty.
I walked across the threshold to the area where my not-yet-former teammates congregated while waiting for the earlier classes to clear the equipment. A hush fell over the group as I approached the vertical cubbies where we kept our stuff; getting a cubby with your name on it was one of the perks of being part of the competitive team, and I remembered a day not long before when that simple piece of furniture lit a fire under me to learn and improve until I earned a space of my own. I brimmed with pride the first time I saw "Emily" drawn in artsy letters on the clear plastic in the top left corner. But on the night of my last practice, I blinked at the now-blank space, streaked a little bit from a hasty swipe with some kind of cleanser. I set my bag there, but the streaked plastic mocked me, my stuff pretending to belong somewhere it no longer had any right to be, until I couldn't stand it any more and moved my bag to the set of shelves used by the younger students.
The head coach came over and called me aside. I fought to look her in the eye.
"We didn't expect you to be here tonight. Your mom wrote us a letter that you wanted to quit."
"So why are you here?"
"We paid through the end of the month. Today's the 31st, so I had one more practice."
She looked at me hard with a mixture of frustration and curiosity. Silence stretched out long enough to make me shift my weight back and forth and worry whether the churning in my stomach was turning into a real issue (a possibility I normally would have found horrifying but in this case would have given me an excuse to go home early). I didn't look away, though, and she sighed and sent me to the floor for stretching. "Join your usual rotation," were the last words she ever spoke to me.
The hours passed in a blur. A couple of complicated strings of skills I'd been working on for months finally came together in one of those ironies I couldn't quite appreciate at the time. My teammates either ignored me or asked a few tentative questions. The ones who cared enough to talk to me recognized I was barely holding it together and didn't push. One girl whispered to me in the line for vault that she was going to quit, too, but her mom wanted her to wait until the end of the school year. I nodded in understanding before taking off down the runway and hurtling myself into the air.
"Keep your head up on the landing," the coach (the sawed-off broomstick guy) called out as I scurried off the mat. I wondered why he bothered with critique if he knew I wasn't coming back, so I looked at him over my shoulder.
"Keep your head up," he said again and nodded for emphasis. I nodded back and walked away. When practice ended a half hour later, I walked out into the night where my other grandfather waited in his truck and sobbed all the way home.
I would go back to gymnastics off and on for a few years at different gyms, then I would take what I loved from it and turn that into a run as an NCA All-American cheerleader. My body still bears the outlines of strength and power etched into it by all those sit ups and chin ups and jumps, and when I feel loose and out of shape, I return to the exercises I used to hate. Gymnastics wove discipline and desire and the beauty of form and motion into a framework that continues to offer me structure and balance all these years later.
"Keep your head up on the landing."
Yes, sir. I remember.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.