What people don’t realize when they wish to be a couple inches taller, is that a certain amount of awkwardness is inherent to the territory. The shift occurs sometime around puberty, when you wake up and your limbs are too big for your body. Suddenly, middle school hallways are an obstacle course for adolescents who don’t understand where their arms end.
I like to think that I’ve lost my limb-induced awkwardness now that my body has grown to normal human proportions, but there are some situations that will take my confidence level back down to that of a sixth grader who stands a full head taller than her classmates, on shaky legs like Bambi learning to walk.
Recently, I attended a volleyball clinic that was advertised as “suitable for all skill levels.” Like most clinics, it was meant to build technique. I was looking forward to hearing about my ineptitude from this particular clinic’s coaches, both of whom were past members of the Chinese olympic volleyball team. I wanted to impress them, so I wore my most intimidating all black outfit, complete with a shirt from another volleyball camp, to show them I meant business. I even washed my sweaty kneepads so they didn’t smell like vomit.
When I arrived, I expected to see a court full of teenage girls, but instead I was met by a group of 15 Asian girls under the age of ten. I was the only person in the room over five feet tall. In that moment, I felt very aware of my knees.
A nine year old girl with hot pink knee pads was the first to welcome me to the group. She asked me what grade I’m in and told me I’m really tall. I thanked her. This girl started playing when she was three, so she was my volleyball elder. You have to respect your elders. She was the coaches’ pick, chosen to demonstrate every drill except blocking, which she had to forfeit because she could not reach the net.
The coaches spoke a mix of Chinese and English with the other girls and English only with me, mainly to tell me that everything my previous coaches taught me is wrong. Learning the basics anew took me back to middle school and I felt self-consciousness rise up like bile in my throat. I felt like the jolly green giant, except I was a lot less jolly, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
From my coaches, I received terse suggestions to jump higher or bend lower and a minutes-long diatribe on how I need to loosen up my arms. As an added bonus, all of my coaches’ words were colored with Chinese accents, so I was never quite sure I understood their advice correctly. I was not asked to demonstrate.
The coaches were tough on my pink-kneepad friend. Her mother, another former olympian, looked disappointed. When we had a water break, she scolded her daughter in Chinese and then demonstrated the proper form. Pink kneepads didn’t cry, so it must be a pretty regular occurrence. I wondered if she even liked volleyball, although at this point, quitting would be nearly impossible. She was already being scoped out for the women’s national team.
Still, as the coaches chewed her out for not fixing the same mistake they had pointed out earlier, it was hard not to feel smug. Not to brag, but they never had to say that to me. I received a near endless stream of corrections, but I never had to hear the same one twice. I have promise. With time, I will be as good as the elementary schoolers.