Mrs. G. was never good at team sports. Besides her genetic predisposition to teetering, tripping over air and, then, bursting into tears, her desire to please her fellow teammates eclipsed any eagerness to win. She shuffled across the competition continuum in order to secure her spot at the next slumber party. Mrs. G. would chuck the softball way past first to make sure Stephanie Simon was safe or ram the basketball underhanded into Charlie Peters' kidneys to snag the foul for the girls' team. She was a loose cannon, her only strategy to get out alive and well liked. In sixth grade she gave up team sports altogether.
So she was surprised and skeptical her junior year in high school when the cross country coach, Mrs. Hornaday -- a tall, skeletal woman with a dyed black pageboy haircut and a slash of red lipstick across her heavily creased mouth -- approached her about joining the team. Mrs. G. explained she wasn't into team sports but Mrs. Hornaday, frantically rubbing the nap on the left arm of her midnight blue velour track suit, explained when you were running, you were only competing with yourself. Competing with herself, unless it involved plowing through and shrinking the stack of library books on her night stand, sounded uninteresting, pointless to Mrs. G. This, combined with her congenital fear of falling, led her to tell Mrs. Hornaday thank you, really, but no thank you. "I'll see you tomorrow. Practice is at 4:00," Mrs. Hornaday said, unfazed by Mrs. G's polite refusal. "It will look good on your transcript." Mrs. Hornaday, a frail, sickly looking woman who could have been 45 or 65, twitched down the hall like a hyper thyroid without saying goodbye.
Still a pleaser, Mrs. G. showed up the next day. Mrs. Hornaday, a stopwatch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, introduced her to the team and explained the drill, which was to simply to run behind everyone else as fast as she could...after she ate two hamburgers. Each practice, Mrs. Hornaday, a big believer in iron and meat, would show up with a bag of Krystal hamburgers, mini square burgers which tasted like food warming lamps and sweat and insist each runner chow down. By week four of practice, Mrs. G. felt more confident -- she hadn't fallen once -- though she was consistently the last runner in. The minute Mrs. Hornaday saw Mrs. G. clearing the wooded path, she would shout, "That's my girl, Copeland, haul it on in." Mrs. G. would haul it on in only to discover, once again, the large orange thermos of Gatorade empty. Slowly realizing the satisfaction of being less of a pleaser, Mrs. G. would address the injustice of the lack of hydration to her faster, bastarding bastard teammates. "Get over it," Mrs. Hornaday, swallowed up in smoke and Taboo perfume, would say, offering Mrs. G. a swig of her cold coffee. "There's always someone a step or two ahead of you. Just keep going and deal with it."
Mrs. G. dealt with it until she graduated, roused and galvanized by a brittle boned, phlegmy-lunged woman of indeterminate age who she could probably break in half.
You can't predict who is going to move you (or make you move). Watch and listen carefully. Mrs. G. never ran again but she keeps hauling it on in, a step or two behind, and deals with it. The only difference, now she brings her own drink.