She stands with confidence and watches her third base coach move his hands quickly, silently speaking a language only she and her teammates understand. The light bounces off of the large silver bow decorating her ponytail of thick blonde hair, the glittery fabric of the loops capturing my attention again and again.
When the silent directions are complete, she turns to step into the box. As a righty, she enters from the umpire's left and boldly holds her right hand, palm facing him, in what would be a "talk to the hand" gesture anywhere else but here indicates she is going to take her time to get set. Both feet planted, her right hand joins her left in a practiced grip on her bat. I see concentration, strength, strategy, determination. I see the muscles in her arms and legs work with each swing.
Despite being an athlete most of my life, I carry a chip on my shoulder about being judged not by my strength but by my gender. I am an athlete, not a girl. I am always prepared to defend my toughness. I challenge the boys on my soccer team to footraces, I verbally jockey for the lead in any smack-talking competition, and I refuse help carrying anything to my car.
I've watched my niece over the years on many hot, dusty fields. She is a competitor, she is fierce, and she wears bows. More than once, though, I've been tempted to offer to take the bow out of her hair and hide it so she doesn't have to wear it. To me, wearing a bow diminished her stature as an athlete; she didn't need to be "girly" and I wanted nothing more than to see her outgrow the bow.
Something shifts today as I watch her, together with her teammates, battle unsuccessfully to avoid elimination from a national tournament. I realize the young women with dirt-streaked faces, well-worn cleats, and salty sweat stains on their jerseys are perfectly comfortable being both athletes and female. The choice to adorn their hair makes a statement: yes, I'm wearing a bow, what's it to you?
After the team finishes the post-game talk with the coach, the players wander to say hello to the fans. On top of the wagon full of team gear rides a long stick about an inch thick, several feet long, and decorated with more sparkles. I ask Mckayla what it is for and she responds, "it's our spirit stick. We all put our hands on it when we cheer, you know, a spirit stick." I smile and chuckle. I wish my long-ago softball team had such an emblem; I really like the ribbons and the stars.
Hugs goodbye complete, I walk toward my car and overhear snippets of conversations.
"That was NOT a strike!"
"Yes, I'm hurt. No, I don't need a ride. I'm walking it off so I can play tomorrow."
"Let's do this!"
"Hustle, hustle, hustle, you can do it!"
I leave with a deep satisfaction my girl has it right: bats and bows are a perfectly compatible combination for an athlete like her to wear. She doesn't have to be an athlete or a girl; she is an athlete and a girl. And so am I.
Thanks for the lesson, kid.