So I've been doing a DIY Girls on the Run experiment over the past two months. I've been interested in the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS), the first single-sex charter school in Colorado, which opened in August of 2010. I totally believe in the vision of the school, which integrates health and wellness into all aspects of the curriculum, and its corresponding mission of creating strong, confident girls who are comfortable in their own skin. (Flash back to middle school: I, for one, was so not confident in my own zitty skin. All I wanted to do was fast forward to "the rest of my life.")
Schools and other charities can raise money through participation in the Colfax 5k, half-marathon and marathon, and I was asked to get GALS involved. When the dust settled on the 4,000 e-mails I sent trying to figure everything out, we had 15 6th and 7th grade girls signed up for the 5k. Not bad.
Slight problem: I've never coached middle schoolers (or anybody for that matter, save for this not-totally-successful mentoring experience with Pip), never headed up a fundraising campaign, never dealt with race logistics for anybody other than myself. I was totally out of my element. Thankfully, a mom to one of the girls and a great runner named Jen also volunteered to help.
Twice a week, either she or I--or, on good days, both of us--gathered up the girls in the morning and ran with them. (Every day at the school starts with morning movement for all students, so we just created a running group.) By "run," I mean a pattern of sprinting-all-out, then walking at a leisurely pace. No matter how many times we told them the girls to find at a pace they could talk at, their running reminded me of my learning how to drive a stick shift back in the day: either peeling rubber or stalling.
Most training days, I'd bring up the rear. There was one girl, whom I'll call Tara, who was predictably in the back. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt on even the warmest days, she was a girl of few words. I spent a lot of time running with her and trying to get her to talk. I'd compliment her on getting stronger. I'd ask her about her family, what she liked about school, what she was doing for the summer, or if she celebrated Easter. She never didn't answer, but we never got a conversation going. Her answers were monosyllabic and in a hushed tone.
I did my best to respect the wall she had built up around her, but a part of me wanted the combination of running and my companionship to chip just a little of it away.
The other girls, most of whom laughed and chatted with each other as they ran, were quick to cheer Tara on when she finished a run, but she hardly reacted to the praise. Over two months, I never saw her smile, so last Tuesday, I gave it one last shot. Taking individual pictures of all of them running, I was totally annoying, yelling at her, "Let's see a smile, Tara! Show me your smile! Do you have a smile in there?" I got eye contact, but no smile.
I don't want to turn this post into the equivalent of an after school special--it's quite possible Tara was just a shy, introverted kid who was comfortable enough in her own skin that she didn't need to please me--but I'll be honest: my heart sank a little yesterday when I realized Tara was the only girl that wasn't going to show up on race day.
I still had a great time; at one point, I was running with a group of four girls and asked them if they had a mantra. "Cappuccino with whipped light," answered one, and it cracked up the whole crowd around us. "Where's a barista when you need one?" laughed one mother runner, pushing a stroller.
But I wanted Tara there. I wanted the miles she'd put in to have affected her enough that she convinced somebody in her family to get her to the race. She'd done all the work, and I wanted her to experience the high that comes with meeting a goal. I wanted her to feel the camaraderie of race day and realize she was surrounded by friends. I wanted to see her cross the finish line, and when she did, maybe--just maybe--to smile.
I would've settled, though, for just having her there.