The Unforeseen Benefits...
...of Being a Rollergirl - In August of 2009, I moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Cincinnati for a good job and a new start with my husband and children. As a mother and as a professional, I am driven to be the best. However, it has always been evident to me that the energy devoted to work and children is poured out faster than it can be replenished. So, in a new city, friendless and worn out from being the best for others, I decided to do something for myself. I started writing again, went for solitary walks, and spent hours alone at the library, but all of it felt half-hearted. Then, in the early fall, I was reading WIRED magazine when I came across the following instructions on how to fake a roller derby fight.
I had heard a lot about roller derby, rolled my eyes at the legions of girls who had signed on for the latest fad, and adamantly refused to participate. I am a woman who can count the number of female friends I have had in my lifetime on one hand and I have always liked it that way. That night however, I felt differently. My reaction that night was, "This is it. Women I can relate to. Time away from work and kids. I wonder if Cincinnati has a team."
I did some research and found out that Cincinnati does in fact have a team. After two boot camps, many open skates, and nerve-wracking tryouts, I made the team. I fully expected that my health would improve, I would feel a sense of team camaraderie, and I would have some time for myself. If these things had not happened, I would not have stuck around for the last four months. The improvements in my strength and endurance began almost immediately. Camaraderie happened first with my fellow rookies and then began to branch out to the rest of the team. The time with other women drew me back to my self as I know it as opposed to the self I inhabit when working or mothering.
Had that been it, I would have been happy. I would still be skating. I would still be enjoying myself. However, some things happened that I didn’t expect. These are what I am referring to when I say “the unforeseen benefits of being a rollergirl.” I felt joy. I began to feel real affection and concern for my teammates. My daughter started to like being a girl. These are the unexpected privileges of being on this team. These are the things that have led to the shift from “I’ll give this a try” to “I want at least four seasons, maybe more."
The first is that elusive and ever-sought emotion, joy. Joy is something I do not often experience. It comes unexpectedly and cannot be coerced. So, the first time I used my strength, picked up speed, and realized I was going really fast, the surge of glee surprised me. Had a stranger seen me, they may have wondered why that gangly, goofy woman was grinning like a fool while skating in circles. It was because I felt joy – joy at the fact that I inhabit my body, joy at the fact that I can feel that kind of speed, and joy at the fact that it feels so good. Since that first laugh-out-loud moment of joy in derby there have been many more. I have been elated to watch my teammates celebrate their successes. I have watched my teammates get that same goofy grin after passing the pack and I have laughed and clapped and cheered because I know the elation they feel and I am so happy they get to feel it.
Affection, the second perk, is one that is difficult to explain. I have always measured out my affection carefully. However, I have begun to feel real fondness for the women I skate with. I see their willingness to support one another and I can’t help but care for them (all of this in spite of myself). My concern for my teammates is genuine. I was surprised the first time one of my teammates got hurt and I gasped and held my breath in fear. While empathy like this can be disconcerting to a person like me (who tries to maintain a cool distance), I have to admit that it is a privilege. It draws me closer to my own humanity and that of others. Cozying up to that idea has made me more comfortable in my skin. Plus, now call some women my friends. Never would have guessed it.
The final privilege is the one that draws me back to practice even when I am exhausted over and over again. Cliché, yes, but nothing motivates me like my kids. I am the mother of two daughters. As such, I have become acutely aware that our culture celebrates passive princesses, flirty fairies, and buxom Barbies. None of these are allowed in my house. I thought that this rule, instated before my first daughter was born, would protect her from double-standards and teach her to please herself before others. It has – but it has also taught her to recoil when other girls enjoy traditional femininity and to seek the company of boys. Around the age of three, she began to associate the things she loves (climbing, wrestling, yelling, running, and collecting ‘owies’) with maleness. I don’t know how this happened and all of my efforts to undo it have failed. That is, until I became a rollergirl.
The change in her took me by surprise. Initially, she was angry that mom was leaving so often, that our bedtime routine was being disturbed for evening practices, and that family Sunday mornings were now daddy Sunday mornings. So, when I asked her to come along with me to practice, she refused. There was coercion by dad, kicking and screaming by daughter, and many promises of treats by mom if she would just give it a try. So, she came along. She was shy until she found a friend in the son of a teammate and it was him who drew her back. But the next time she came along with me, he wasn’t there – so she watched. She asked questions and watched some more. That was January and the beginning of her child’s love affair with roller derby. She has now spent hours with the Cincinnati Rollergirls at events, parades, bouts, and practices. She knows their derby names, their real names, and their professions. She knows the positions, some of the rules, and she even cheers at all the right times.
My 4-year-old has her favorites – Sk8 Crime "Because she’s silly," Nuk'em "Because she’s fast," and Hop Devil "Because she’s cool." Now she not only wants to be a woman when she grows up, she wants to be a rollergirl. I could not be happier with the heroes my daughter has chosen. My younger daughter is only two. Because I am a part of this team, I will not have to work so hard to convince her that the world is a place where girls can be strong and successful. The battle to convince her that she gets to be what she wants will be an easier one to fight. What a privilege.
I am not a phenomenal rollergirl and I may never be. I was the kid on the basketball team who never made a basket and the kid on the softball team who only got on base when I was walked. In playground dodge ball, I was always picked last. I am a nerd. But this nerd is improving. This nerd is fast and agile and getting more bold every day. I do not expect to be a superstar (although that won’t keep me from trying). Instead, I relish that I get to be part of this. The door is always open allowing me more ways to improve. My daughters get a boatload of amazing role models. I get to taste personal success and the success of my team. I get to care about my teammates. I get to make progress. I get to feel joy. Lucky O’Slaughter.
- Flannery O'Slaughter