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My Volleyball Mantra
I sighed heavily, as snow covered trees and harsh gloomy skies combined into one big, grey blur before my anxious eyes. My dad had the car radio tuned, as usual, to an oldies station, and I faintly recognized it as some Billy Joel song. “The Piano Man,” he said solemnly, nodding his head, as the opening notes flowed out of the speakers. “Classic song.” I was in no mood to listen to a glorified jaunt down the music memory lane, so I just nodded slightly, and kept my eyes trained to the ample snow piled in the ditches. I had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger things. I shuddered somewhat at the thought of it. In less than five minutes, I would be at my first volleyball practice.
With each cycle of the car’s wheels bringing me closer and closer to the final destination, I experienced the unpleasant sensation of nervous dread in the pit of my stomach. The car kept moving forward, Billy Joel kept crooning, and the school kept growing larger and larger, drawing us in like a black hole. When my dad finally pulled our car in front of the school, my whole body was as rigid as a rigor mortise’s victim. I slowly and deliberately edged out the door, till I was facing my fear. My dad craned his head back against his seat for parting advice. “Work hard, and have fun. That’s what’s most important, learning new things, and having fun while doing it. Mom will pick you up in two hours.” With a parting wave and a trail of exhaust to mark his exit, I turned towards the tall, intimidating building otherwise known as Stewartville High School, his words resounding in my head. Have fun, I thought scathingly. I’ll have about as much fun as prisoners in Nazi concentration camps did. I shouldn’t be here. I’ll be terrible at volleyball. I’ll make a fool of myself.
Some brave, but diminutive part of my brain urged me to move forward, and I obeyed tentatively. I breathed out clouds of exhaust that faded into the air above my head as I sized up the ‘concentration camp’ to which I played prisoner. I kept moving forward, and tried my best to ignore the taunting eyes of the doors that mocked my every step. When my hand finally grasped the frigid door handle, a small rush of pride ran through my body, enough so that I continued on my way, passing through both doors.
As I entered, I picked out about 25 girls sitting around on the stairs that lead to the gym doors. I saw Emily, and some of my other fifth grade friends, and hurriedly made my way over to them, making sure not to step on any of the water bottles and tennis shoes scattered haphazardly on the carpeted floor. Setting up base near her, I got a good glimpse of her face as I pulled my tennis shoes out. Nervousness and anxiety escaped quite effortlessly through her poorly painted mask, and I immediately knew that I was not alone in my plight. We two were twins in our vast uncertainty, and I appreciated her presence all the more.
While we continued to mill around, making small talk and careless jokes, a tall, intimidating man entered from the gym doors. Striking features were on prominent display, assorted in an orderly, symmetric pattern across his face, and a shock of thick, white hair stood firmly atop his head. Sternness and severity radiated generously from his presence. I immediately got the impression that this man should not be crossed.
“Hello, my name is John Dzubay,” he started. “I am the head volleyball coach here at Stewartville. We strive...” He went off in a long, drawn out speech about how Stewartville is widely renowned for its great volleyball program, and how we should be proud to be a part of that. I lost focus after awhile, and just nodded periodically to show that my interest in his words was not, at all, waning. Instead, I concentrated deeply on his gestures. They were both vivid and often, like the pop ups on a computer. His eyes, when he spoke, were brimming with a passion that would be hard to rival.
When his speech drew to a close, he ushered us all into the gym. A pungent, yet oddly invigorating smell of sweat and rubber strongly greeted me as I moseyed on into the vast expanse where we were to play volleyball. The gym, for some reason, reminded me of a large fish tank in its build, excluding the water and aquarium paraphernalia. I looked up at the sea of light spanning over the gym, and the four walls adorned in posters promoting the SHS tigers, taking everything in with wide, unworldly eyes. Rotating around, I joined the other girls in grabbing a ball, which we used to learn our first volleyball skill: bumping. Emily and I paired together for this task, and listened closely as Mr.Dzubay took us through step by step on the proper bumping form. We practiced without balls at first, and I felt ridiculously clumsy as I tried to coordinate my hands, arms, knees, and feet into something resembling a correct stance.
“Now, with your partner, take turns throwing the ball underhand at each other,” Mr. Dzubay commanded. “Remember to keep your knees bent, arms straight.”
Bumping without a ball was testing my athletic capabilities, or so I thought. Now, to maneuver into that position with a ball flying at me, well, I was beginning to believe that skydiving blindfolded would be easier. As Emily started to toss that first ball to me, my nerves and muscles tensed in anticipation, and I was supremely aware of the position of my feet, legs, and upper body in proportion to one another. It felt right. It felt new, but it felt right. And as I bent my knees to complete the pass, my body seemed to take over for my mind, and I didn’t think, I just did. All the different steps we’d learned came together in me, and my body executed them without so much as a pause. When that ball hit my arms, and ricocheted off them in a perfect arc, I knew that I had found something that I could be good at, something that came naturally, something that I could grow to love. It made me feel purposeful, as if I wasn’t just another generic individual, standing on dull side of life, looking in at the go-getters. I felt, somehow, like I belonged; I had found my niche.
A series of systematic whistle blows signaled the changing of partners, and then the changing of course. After bumping we were eagerly taught how to correctly set the ball, serve the ball, and finally, spike the ball. Left right left, left right left was an aggravating, ever-present chant in my head after about 50 consecutive repetitions of clumsily leaping up and down the court to Mr. Dzubay’s voice. It was challenging, unfamiliar, and strenuous, but I loved every minute of it.
Precisely two hours and ten minutes after I arrived, I bounded out of the high school doors, searching wildly with my eyes for our red van, and then blinking rapidly as the harsh winds assaulted my eyes. Spotting it through blurry vision, I made my over, and climbed into the front seat. “So, how was volleyball?” my mom asked, as she shifted gears and began to exit the parking lot. I turned towards the window, and thought about the practice, and how I was at first so reluctant to enter the building. Its funny how something I thought would be nail-biting torture, and something I thought I’d be horrible at, turned out to be the exact opposite. I considered this, and a pleasant realization settled over me, like an early morning mist over a lawn: I found something I truly enjoy, and truly love doing. Who knows what else is out there for me to discover and explore, seek and find? The world on which I dwelled suddenly seemed a much bigger place. For the first time, I looked into the future with hope, excitement, awe, and a sense of purpose, as opposed to the uninterested half-glance I bestowed it in the past. Turning away from the window, I smiled at my mom, and said “Good. Volleyball was good.”