Sixteen Minus One

Almost all the girls: ready to take on a 5k.

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.

25 responses to “Sixteen Minus One

  1. Dimity, as a girl who used to be just like Tara (except that I never would have come out for the group in the first place), I can say that she probably just needs a few more years and a few more positive experiences both athletic and otherwise. She will remember you and the runs. It takes some of us longer to get there than it takes others, but we get there. You are so awesome to encourage these girls!

  2. Dimity! My girlfriend and I saw you out there Saturday when we were running, you were so positive and encouraging those girls and it moved me then and your post moved me now! As a mother and a teacher, I want to thank you for volunteering your time to be a positive role model to those young women. I agree, Tara and the whole GOTR crew will never forget you!

  3. We are kindred spirits!!! About a month ago, I started training middle schoolers as well, but mine are boys! I am a merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts Personal Fitness badge. One of the requirements is that the boys follow a 12 week fitness program. I embraced that and started training them to run in a local 5k. It’s been quite an experience. I love getting to know the boys in this way, and am so excited to run their race with them.

  4. Thanks for sharing this story. Without knowing Tara’s family situation and her biology there’s only so much you can do. You did your best. She may not have shown up for the last day but she showed up for all the others.
    I’d love to hear more about this school. It sounds like a great way to grow some successful, healthy women. Are they the first of their kind?

  5. As the mom of a very shy middle school girl, this post made me cry. A very special soccer coach has pulled her under his wing and is showing extraordinary patience. While she would probably have opened up a bit more than Tara and would have wanted to go to the race (and who knows if Tara did), it warms my heart to know that there are adults out there that care about our kids as much as we do. Thank you for sharing your gift with all of those girls.

  6. Great job, Dimity! The fact that you got that girl (and all the others) is to be commended. I’ve led a 4th & 5th grade girls running group. This year I was thrilled to have nearly 70 girls! While we participated in 4 races together this year, the largest # of girls I had show up at any race was 10. At first, I was really disappointed, but then I started to focus on the fact that 70 show up weekly to run & enjoy the fellowship & that a solid group of 5 or so have shown up at every race & are now hooked having several 5Ks under their belt. You’ve done great, and I would live to hear more about what you’re doing with them-any drills advice, etc. I will continue my GOTR copycat group next year, with the blessing of my principal, but I’d love to make improvements and spread the running love even farther.

  7. This broke my heart. My son is only in preschool and there is a boy in his classroom who is going to grow up to be like this girl. He has so many siblings (not saying big families are bad – not at all, but sometimes parents aren’t prepared for that to give all the kids attention…) and his dad is a trucker so he’s never home. The boy just seems (and I’ve had chats with their teacher) so neglected. I just want to take him home.

  8. I am so sorry, Dimity. Try to remember that your kindness has made an impact that even she isn’t aware of…yet. And you can know that no matter what else may have gone on or is going on in her life, thanks to you she has had one adult in her life who cared enough to tell her that she was doing something right.

  9. Sounds like it was an amazing experience for you and the girls, Dimity. As for Tara, you’ll likely never know what effect participating in the group had on her. Sadly, reality is seldom like a Lifetime movie, where everything is neatly tied up…

  10. As a mom, I got goosebumps reading this post. I am sure the impact you had on Tara is a lot deeper than you know. What an amazing mentor you are to these girls, Dimity!

  11. My heart sank too when I read she wasn’t coming to the race. We just have to believe that the net effect of the group and your influence is positive – that it was a building block and hopefully the first of many encouraging experiences with physical activity. How great the other kids cheered her on! I love what Katie said above—sometimes we plant the seed but can’t always watch it grow. But that doesn’t lessen the importance of the care you took with that group and her in particular.
    Oh, and those are some pretty cute faces in that picture!

  12. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I hope my kids are blessed with caring and determined coaches as you have been with the GALS.

  13. I coached this year for the first time ever my son’s track team. Have never coached anyone or anything ever. I have so much respect now for anyone who ventures into such a task because it can be so rewarding but so difficult. I had a girl who I had almost given up on because no matter how hard I tried to push or encourage she stayed her own pace. Then at our last meet I was watching her do triple jump with her mom next to me and while she was lamenting about her daughter needing to push harder, I shook my head and said I wasn’t sure she wanted to push. At this point she looked at me and told me that this young 6th grader had rheumatoid arthritis. I kept pushing her to go harder when just to participate she was accomplishing so much. I walk away from this season with a lesson in humility. Hats off to you for putting it all out there to get a group of young women running!

    1. WOW! This brought tears to my eyes.
      And had you known previously you might not have treated her just like the other kids – in motivating her to push harder… but it’s still amazing what some people push themselves to do – regardless of their bodies failing abilities to be on par with their drive and ambition.

  14. I love this post! Girls on the run is a great program, and I bet you’re amazing. I wonder if you pick it back up in the Fall if she would open up more over time? Just being positive all the time was great!

  15. If you’re going to make me cry first thing in the morning, you should warn a girl! You did the best you could for Tara, Dimity. I bet she’ll remember this for longer than you’d realize.

  16. It is heartbreaking, but I’m sure that the day-to-day contact with healthy role models had soem influence on her. As a teacher, you have to trust that what you’ve done is enough.

    I’m working on getting a healthy choices group started for my junior high students next year. While there will be some running, we’re looking at including other activities like cycling, yoga, Zumba, etc. I’d love to hear more about starting this kind of group!

  17. You can lead a horse to water…
    Not trying to be flippant (at all) but you definitely did what you could do.
    I am interested in this because I am trying to get my 11-year-old daughter more enthused with running, she’s done 3 5k’s, but I feel like it’s just been to humor me.

  18. Really well written, Dimity. I know Tara will remember you many years from now. Sometimes we plant the seed, but can’t watch it grow. And that’s OK. You did your part. Good job.

  19. Loved this post…I’m working on starting a girl’s (grades 3 -5) running club here in South Florida…creating it based loosely on GOTR. For now, based on many things, membership with GOTR is not an option but I’d love to hear more about what’s worked, what’s not…etc. Any time we can get our girls out running, showing them how to embrace a strong and healthy body, the more everyone wins!

    1. Hey Melodie: here’s what worked for this group. Out and backs seem to be best; the fast ones can speed ahead and you can pick up the slower ones when you turn around. Prizes are good, I’ve heard, but I never got around to doing it; instead, I gave them all tee shirts and pictures of themselves running on the day before the race. Costumes seem to make race day run. Other than that, just have them run (or sprint/walk). We did 2.7 miles as our longest run prior to race day, and everybody seemed to be fine. Good luck with your group!

  20. As a GOTR coach for a few years now that happens every once in a while. The girl that most needs it does not show up. It is heartbreaking but I have to believe that what she gets from the day in./day out stuff will effect her in some positive way.

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