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A sharp pain stung my neck. I turned around to see five eighth graders holding rubber bands and laughing hysterically. My face flushed with confusion and embarrassment, which only made them laugh harder. “Oh, calm down! It’s just a bee sting,” they said. Then the pack silently approached the next sixth grader in line and snapped her neck with a rubber band. “Oh, stop crying!”
That night, when I arrived home with welts on my neck, my mom freaked out and called it “hazing,” a word that was foreign to me. I replied, “This is just what eighth graders do.”
A few weeks passed before my group of terrified sixth graders built up our courage to tell the assistant coach. “Kids will be kids,” she replied. “Get over it.”
As she walked away, the sixth graders formed a huddle.
“This isn’t right,” I hissed, stunned by the dismissive attitude of our assistant coach.
“She can’t just do nothing!” exclaimed an angry teammate. So we decided to bring the issue to our head coach.
His response? “You’ll be fine; it’s just a rubber band.”
Now my embarrassment was turning to anger. Coaches are supposed to protect their teams on and off the field, yet ours did nothing when a quarter of his team was terrified to even come to practice. In that moment, I realized I had no desire to ever be the type of person who makes others feel unwelcome or unsafe, especially on a team where they should feel like they belong.
I did, however, aspire to be like the two eighth graders who didn’t take part in the hazing. Lily and Jamie never once touched a rubber band. While the other eighth-grade teammates doled out “bee stings,” Lily and Jamie would ask how our day had been. They didn’t laugh when the bullies did. Instead, Lily and Jamie sympathized with the sixth graders and laughed at our jokes. I knew if I ever needed them, Lily and Jamie would be there to help; they became my role models.
Two years later, I watch as fly ball after fly ball is hit to Mary, a tiny sixth grader in center field. The ball bounces off her glove over and over, and the runners jog around the bases arrogantly, as though confident that our team can’t get them out. Mary’s head drops after each play, her face burning red with frustration and embarrassment.
After we finally make three outs, Mary walks to the dugout with tears streaming down her face; she believes she let the team down. I pull her aside, wrap my arms around her, and say, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Days like this happen to the best of us.”
Slowly her face returns to normal and her smile appears again. I know, in that moment, I have become what I aspired to be: like Lily and Jamie.