Terri Trespicio

Contest Winner - 1st Place

Terri Trespicio is a New York–based writer, speaker, and branding expert. A former senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart, she recently delivered a TED talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) that has earned more than a million views. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth, among others—and she has appeared on the Today show, Dr. Oz, The Early Show, The Martha Stewart Show and The Anderson Cooper Show. She’s also the co-creator of Lights Camera Expert, an online program for helping experts and authors gain media attention. Terri earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and is currently at work on a book of essays. More at territrespicio.com.

 

The Rules of Boxball

There we are again, in the parking lot of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, where we are every day from 10:05 to 10:30. It’s January. The sun is sharp as a blade against the blacktop, and we can see our breath. The red rubber ball, the size of a basketball but softer, makes a hollow noise as it hits the blacktop, bounces from one pair of hands to another. It sings a little as it strikes; it’s the sound of something being pushed back and forth like a choice no one is ready to make.

The game is boxball and the rules are simple: Four people play at a time. The ball can only bounce in your box once and then you bounce it into another girl’s. If you don’t get to it fast enough or you stumble or miss the first bounce, you’re out. You relinquish your square of blacktop and everyone rotates. The next girl steps in from the queue along the yellow line where they’re just waiting for you to fuck up.

It seems simple enough, but the ball moves quickly and you never know what the other girl will do. Ellen Raines is tall, rangy, and slightly menacing; she’ll spike it, whereas Heather Schmidt will put a little English on it, making it spin as it comes out of the bounce; it won’t go where you expect. Sarah McKirk is steady and consistent and will wait you out.

Grammar school lasts longer than most marriages. We’ve had years to learn each other’s habits, form our small resentments.

The boxball court is where girls learn to defend their space, hold their boundaries. Where you learn that, really, it’s every person for herself. And worse: Sometimes you have to root for someone’s misstep, as much as you hate to do it, because that’s how you get your turn. There is no scoring; you win by staying in the game. It’s not a girls’ game, really. But none of the boys play. It’s an unspoken rule that this is where the ladies of the sixth grade convene. Just a bunch of girls guarding their boxes, which is what we’ll spend our lives doing, anyway.

Despite the cold, Ellen is wearing a turtleneck and her brother’s blue sweatshirt. She’s always slightly underdressed. I’m wearing a puffy down coat that my mother bought me at Macys. It’s the color of a blue M&M. I hate it. But it’s warm. My hair looks exactly the same every day: trained into two tight ponytails with a wet comb and those elastics with the two balls on the end that sometimes snap and whack my mother on the fingernail.

I’m thinking lots of things but I don’t say anything, because we don’t talk during the game. The ball is the conversation, and it moves from one to the other without pause. This is the game women learn to play young: To give something that you want back, to know there’s a catch in the giving. We watch, wait, anticipate. The bounce of the ball is our metronome, the rhythm of our mornings, the way we make ourselves count.

I consider myself one of the better players. I’m quick on my feet and can anticipate a punt, bank an unreturnable bounce. I can sense weakness but pretend I don’t, and knock one girl after the next out of her box. Julie Bernardini isn’t fast enough—I catch her off guard, she flubs, laughs it off. I’ll admit, I like taking Julie out of that box. She’s got great hair and full lips and something in her knows she’s got it made for the next decade, so she doesn’t have to be that good at anything, and isn’t. In the seventh grade, she’ll show me how to apply a metallic blue-green swipe of eyeliner along the waterline that makes me feel like Joan Jett. (“Wash that off,” my mother will say. “I don’t like it. It makes you look hard.”)

But Ellen Raines is a foot taller than everyone in the class and the only true athlete among us. Years later I will run into her on the subway platform in Manhattan, waiting for the 2 train. I’ll see the profile, the long sloping nose, the thick mane like a tail. I chase her a few paces before landing a hand on the shoulder of her trench coat. “It’s you!” I say, and to my disappointment, she’s not surprised or excited. She says hello and nice to see you. She’s not nearly as tall as I remember.

You’re not likely to sustain an injury during boxball. Not like during capture the flag, when Josh Vanderhoof ran straight into me and gave me a black eye, sent my Little Orphan Annie glasses crashing to the ground. I wept a little, ice on my eye as I packed up my bag for the day, feeling like an injured warrior, and high-fived Chris McMurphy (floppy hair, freckles, the Secret Santa you hoped for) on the way out to my mother’s station wagon. I had taken one for the team, and that effort had not gone unnoticed.

The boys prefer kickball where the sky’s the limit and force prevails. And of course we all love a good round of girls chase boys, where the girls leave their somber squares and enjoy some stunning initiative, grab for the boys’ collars and sleeves. There’s no strategy. Just go after someone nakedly, rather than mask it in subtlety, passivity, which we usually do and often will. When the game reverses, and it’s boys chase girls, we squeal and run in a dozen directions. But we’re not really afraid. We pray and pray to be caught, at least once.

Anything is better than the worst game of all—keepaway—which is what it is, and it’s terrible. Because this is the game the world has been playing the longest, girls waving about and leaping, the ball arcing up and over, and always, always, out of reach.

Five minutes until the bell rings signalling the end of recess. Heather has the ball; she passes to Ellen. I’m distracted for a moment as Chris McMurphy leaps into view to catch a Frisbee. He seems so free, so focused, the disc sailing into his hand. Ellen sees her opportunity, slams it into my back corner; I miss. I seethe a little inside as I walk to the back of the line, and think meanly that I might as well let her enjoy this small victory since she’s got a face like a horse. This, of course, is how women keep each other back. Regrettable, but true.

Later, in gym class, we’ll be on the kickball field, standing in the outfield waiting for Phil Cabudo to kick a flyer so we can chase it down and huck it lamely toward first base. We want to do more than try to catch what’s kicked at us. And that means squaring off with each other, and watching each other lose sometimes. These aren’t the last women I’ll face down. This is just the last time the rules will be so clear, so obvious. Later, the games will change. Sometimes you won’t know you were playing, let alone whether you’ve won or lost.

The first bell signals the end of recess, and by the second ring, we’re lined up along the stairs by the school entrance. Ellen reaches out and tugs one of my ponytails. I turn around. She’s resting the ball against her hip. “Good game,” she says smiling a rare toothy grin. “Too bad you got a little distracted.” I tell her to shut up. “Gotta keep your eye on the ball,” she says. Then: “Think fast!” She shoots the ball at me, and it lands hard like a fist against my chest.

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