This guest-post was written by Sarah Egan and featured on Fitness.gov.
Come to the blacktop at my middle school and hang out for a couple of hours. You’ll get a sense of what 12-to-14-year olds like and how they act. For them this is the center of the world.
When I started teaching in 2009, I watched life unfold on the asphalt. During recess and before and after school, the boys took center stage on all four basketball courts — dribbling, pivoting, guarding, pushing, blocking, faking, jumping, dunking, high fiving and taunting each other. They were agile and fast. The girls talked to each other and watched the boys from the perimeter of the tarmac. My instinct had always been to jump right into the action! Why weren’t these girls playing on the blacktop? Why didn’t they join the boys or take control of a court themselves?
I teach U.S. and world history to 200 7th & 8th graders in Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco. It’s a low-income school and close to 80 percent of the students are new immigrants — from Central and South America, Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. It’s tough coming up with a lesson that connects to such a diverse audience. Recently I compared the Declaration of Independence to a break-up letter between a girlfriend and boyfriend. The colonialists listed all the reasons for breaking up with the King of England. This approach totally worked and the kids were hooked!
Three months into the job, the athletic director asked if I’d coach one of the girls’ basketball teams — in addition to teaching social studies. Frankly, I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t anticipated how difficult teaching would be — especially at a school where kids show up in the morning stressed out. Their parents are struggling to adapt to a new country, find work and support their families. Often 12 people or more are crowded into a single apartment. Some kids are homeless. Some parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. My kids experience a lot of pressure. A quarter of them are in counseling.
Sports — and especially basketball — had been the highlight of my middle school experience. Basketball had been the center of my social life. The social lives of my girl students seemed random and lacked an anchor. Despite my workload, I accepted the coaching job.
My first goal: generate interest among the girls to join the team. Few girls had tried out. I started channeling my inner 13-year-old self. Back then what did I care about? What had appealed to me? I had always gravitated to the social aspects of the team. So I invited the girls to attend girls’ high school and college basketball games. Afterwards we’d go out for pizza and discuss the game we’d just seen. Why did team A win? What were specific defense and offense strategies that worked? These outings were a hit. Word of mouth spread and soon other girls — most of whom had never stepped onto a basketball court before — asked to join the team.
The girls had always worn the boys’ maroon reversible uniforms. The arm holes were so large that they had to wear tee shirts underneath. And the shorts were so baggy that they sagged below their knees. I began calling and writing local companies to beg for uniform donations. I eventually got an offer — 24 uniforms for $200.00. I kicked in some of my own money and ordered them all. The girls finally had uniforms that fit and looked stylish. These uniforms created buzz, and soon girls were showing up at basketball practice.
During this first season, we concentrated on basic basketball skills — how to dribble, pivot, pass and shoot. There was a big disconnect between a slow-moving practice and a real game. Early on, I considered it a success if they ran in the right direction. Sure enough, my team lost every game. They were downcast. I had to keep positive. I told the girls, “Listen up. You’re just starting out. You’re taking baby steps now. Remember that you’re up against girls who’ve been playing basketball since 3rd grade. But you have it in you to catch up. Stay focused, work hard and you’ll turn this around.”
After a season of losses, an amazing thing happened the next year: 80 girls tried out for the basketball team. I remember one girl in particular — I just couldn’t believe she came back. She was in my U.S. history class and was a good student. But she wasn’t athletic at all. On the basketball court she was tentative and awkward. During games she was a mess. But she listened. She never missed practice. Teammates noticed. Her discipline started to rub off on the others.
We kept practicing. I ratcheted up the intensity. And I talked our way into a Catholic league that had the strongest competition in the area. We were one of the few public schools to be included. I took the long view: the tougher the competition, the better our training. The shorter view was another season of straight losses. Losing was tough. But the girls returned for more practice and pep talks. They started looking after each other. A player would give me a heads up that another player’s family had just been evicted and would probably miss some practices. She’d say, “I know we can’t afford this now, but please, Coach, go easy on her.”
Despite our reputation as a doomed team, we kept at it. Theory and practice started to mesh. During our third season their offense and defense skills sharpened. For the first time, they were playing like a team. After a record-defying string of defeats they won their first game. We were euphoric, but we quickly buckled down to prove this wasn’t some fluke. The pressure was on. During practices I introduced more complex plays.
Team know-how and spirit soared. Girls started dribbling through the halls. They’d line their balls against the wall in my history class. They started speaking up in class, disagreeing with a point and asking questions. On the blacktop boys were asking girls to play, and some girls took over a court to start their own game.
We continued to reverse our history of defeats. And in an astonishing turn of events, we made it to the championship semi-finals this spring. In the last two minutes of the third quarter we were down by 8 points. I called a thirty-second time out in the middle of our free throw. I pulled the girls into a tight circle and looked directly at the girl who was about to throw: “It’s not over! You’ve worked way too hard to give up. You’ve got to be mentally tough and show them what you’ve got. Fight back. Let’s do this!” Our lead player went back to the line and made the free throw. They fought back from an 8-point deficit and quickly tied the game. Forty seconds remained. My heart was in my throat. We’d pull ahead. They’d pull ahead. This went on, back and forth. We went into double overtime.
We won 42-40. All nine girls on our team scored. This was insanely amazing. Girls cried. Somehow, I was in such shock I didn’t cry. But every time I replay that game in my head, I’m in a puddle of tears.
In the championship finals, we lost 40-18 to a really good team. But we were floating on air. The quiet student who was the awkward mess from the first season was grinning from ear to ear. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to get the Most Valuable Player award.
Recently we celebrated over barbecue in my backyard. Some girls will be heading off to high school next year, so this group will be splitting up. As I chopped onions for the burgers, the girls spontaneously formed a circle and held hands. Someone said, “Let’s go around the circle and say what we’ll miss most about our team.” One by one, I heard responses like “You’re my best friend,” “I’ll never forget how you got me through math class,” “I wouldn’t be graduating this year if it weren’t for you,” “Thanks for having my back.” The girls were crying. I was crying.
I taught them the rules of the game. But the girls took it from there. They took the team seriously. They learned to trust each other — on and off the court. In three years they built more than a team. They formed a remarkable family. In the classroom, I’ve seen their confidence take off. These once quiet, tentative girls have become almost boisterous. They’ve become better athletes and stronger students. I’m in awe.