A few weeks ago I started volunteering with Girls on the Run, an incredible organization that teaches girls in 3rd-5th grade life skills while they train to run a 5K. As with 99.9% of my volunteer experiences, I went in thinking I was doing something to “give back” and turns out I’m the one who is receiving so, so much.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I leave work at 4pm, which is sometimes really, really hard to do – not because of my boss or my job [who are beyond accommodating and supportive] but because of my own unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies. One of the other coaches said she volunteers partly as a forcing mechanism to get her to leave the office and I’m starting to empathize with that. Knowing that a group of high energy, loving, silly, irrepressible 8-10 years olds is counting on me is all the accountability I need to get me out the door. I don’t want to disappoint them, and I don’t want to miss one moment of time with them.
I’ve pretty much gotten choked up at every practice. A few weeks ago the lesson was on self talk, and we had the girls pair up to practice turning negative self talk to into positive. One of the little girls ran towards her partner and said in a small voice, head downcast “I’m ugly and stupid.” My heart stopped in that moment – hearing a precious 8 year old voice such ugly thoughts aloud made me feel unable to breathe and I struggled with what to say in response. I didn’t need to worry, because before I could say anything her partner looked at her and piped up in a cheery, matter of fact voice “Audrey, you’re not ugly! Everyone is beautiful in their own way!” Audrey’s face lit up with a smile as she skipped back to her place in line, and I tried to hold it together and not burst out crying at the beauty in front of me.
The girls aren’t saints – they push the boundaries and test limits and seem incapable of listening for more than 5 seconds at a time. But that makes me love them all the more. They are beautiful in their humanity. There is a raw honestly to them that breaks my heart. They haven’t grown all of the creative, complex layers of self-protection we adults do, so the things they say and do are often breathtakingly raw and honest.
One of the girls twisted her ankle during practice, and got a piggy back ride back to school. One of the other little girls was walking behind and looked at me, sighed and said matter of factly “Sometimes I like getting hurt because I get attention and comfort. I don’t think people like me very much, so it’s nice when people are nice to me.” Again, before I could speak another girl standing nearby piped up “Olivia, I like you! You’re my friend!” Olivia beamed, and I severely regretted not wearing waterproof mascara that day.
Spending time with these girls fills my heart with so much, and also gives me a glimpse of how terrifying parenting is. I’m used to chubby two year olds whose biggest problem is tantrums. These girls are full blown, undeniable people, figuring out who they are and how they fit in, navigating bullies and hurt and friendships and self worth. I’ve heard the quote that parenting is like having your heart walk around outside of your body and given how much I already care about these precious girls I’ve known less than a month, I can only imagine how true that is.
A few days after Kavanaugh was confirmed, as I was still processing the deep hurt and anger and sense of betrayal of all women that his confirmation and the surrounding conversation stirred up, I found myself standing in Washington Square Park cheering these girls on as they ran laps. They were all trying their best, pushing themselves beyond how far and fast they had run before, and I yelled encouragement at them as they ran by.
“You are so strong!”
“You got this girl!”
“You’re trying so hard! I’m so proud of you!”
“Finish strong! You can do this!”
Speaking those words of love and truth and encouragement over these precious girls felt like a sacrament, a holy moment, a benediction. Words matter, and every woman I know, myself included, has a tape in her head of the discouraging words she’s heard in her lifetime. “You’re not pretty enough, strong enough, smart enough. Girls can’t run, Girls can’t do math, Girls can’t be the boss. No one likes you, you have no friends, you’ll never be enough.” As I stripped my throat raw yelling and cheering and making a total fool of myself in the midst of tourists, dog walkers and homeless folks in North Beach, I felt such hope bubbling up inside of me.
I can’t change the Supreme Court. I can’t change the toxic narratives floating around that minimize and diminish women’s stories. I can’t convince every woman that she is strong and beautiful and loved, that she matters and that her story matters. I can’t do all of that, but I can do this. I can stand in a park and yell my heart out and high five a dozen strong, smart, kind girls who are going to grow up – God willing – into strong, smart, kind women, and change the world in their own ways. I can front-load words of encouragement and love to the lifelong narrative they are accumulating in their minds and hearts.
As I stood there cheering wildly, one of the girls ran past me, glasses askew, long hair flying behind her, her dress flapping in the wind, limbs akimbo as she ran with her whole heart, and I just thought “This. This is the future, this is hope, this is the very best of what I want for our world and every child and girl and woman in it.”
One of my most treasured possessions is a rock that sat on my dad’s desk, inscribed with the Mother Teresa quote “Do no great things, only small things with great love.” That’s what I’m doing on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in Washington Square Park. I’m not changing laws or changing the world. But I’m loving and encouraging 12 precious little girls, and praying that my words stick with them as they navigate this big, broken yet still beautiful world.
Because to quote a very wise 5th grader I know, we’re all beautiful in our own way.