On the evening after April Fools' Day, I showed up at the practice rink with nothing but a knot in my stomach and what I imagine was a fresh-meat-in-the-headlights look in my eyes. This was no joke.
As promised, Sue Zee Haymaker had brought me a pair of Cobra skates that she'd bought at a flea market. She'd paid $2.00 for them. I gave her $2.50. Compared to good skates, these were awful, but they were an enormous improvement over the rentals I'd been using, and I was thrilled to have them.
Since I didn't have any protective gear for that first practice, I didn't do much but skate around and watch the other girls do drills. By now I was staying on my feet most of the time, which was a considerable improvement, given that just three weeks earlier I could barely stand on wheels. But by the end of that first practice, going from standing to skating proved to be a problem. My brain told my body to move, but my feet apparently didn't get the memo. My upper body swayed forward while my legs stayed still, and down I went on my left knee.
In that moment I vowed that I wouldn't get on roller skates again without knee pads. So by the next practice a week later, I had the full monty of gear: knee gaskets, knee pads, padded shorts, elbow pads, mouthguard, and helmet.
Well, I had the full gear monty minus one thing: Wrist guards. The pair I'd ordered online were too small and had to be exchanged. I didn't have them in time for that second practice, but I skated anyway. This was a mistake, because I fell and slammed my palm into the court. And it was in that moment, of course, that I vowed never to skate without knee pads and wrist guards.
By practice number three I finally had every single piece of gear that I needed. This meant that I could participate on a whole new level. And this made my third practice feel like my first.
We started that practice with a falling drill. Knowing how to fall well is a key part of roller derby. I don't know if there's any other sport in which "Nice fall!" is meant as a true compliment. You feel smart and powerful when you fall well. It's not that you want to fall, but you have to accept that it's going to happen, and you need to know how to do it as safely and painlessly as possible. Plus -- and this is the real kicker -- you need to not fear it. This mental aspect is much harder to master than the physical aspects of falling safely.
Strap eight wheels onto your feet, and everything in your body and mind screams at you: Don't fall! For the love of your beautiful bones, don't fall! You must overcome this. You have to trust that all of this gear you're wearing will work if you just follow the instructions.
As I stood in the drill line, realizing that I was going to have to execute a physical activity while a bunch of other women watched, everything in my mind and heart screamed at me: Don't do this! For the love of your pride, don't do this!
What terrified me more than the idea of learning how to fall was the idea of other people seeing me learn how to fall. I have spent my entire adult life avoiding situations in which I might make a physical fool of myself. Yet here I was, a grown woman engaged in a voluntary, recreational activity, and I felt like the chubby, out-of-shape girl in eighth grade gym class waiting in line for one of the stations of the President's Physical Fitness Test. Do you remember those? I hated gym class in an average week, but my loathing and level of humiliation reached a new level during testing time. I don't think I ever failed the test, but I certainly couldn't do enough pull-ups or sit-ups to feel good about myself. I didn't run fast, and I couldn't run for very long without getting winded. I think I managed to do fairly well on the standing long jump, but that was little consolation for my overall mediocre performance. The worst part was having the other girls watch while you tried to execute the task. I don't remember anyone ever mocking or insulting me, but they didn't have to. I was doing that silently in my head all by myself.
We grow up, we change. We try new things, we shift perspectives. We get brave, we get hurt. Decades pass, and we're not the same people. Yes, all of these things are true, but we're also still 12-years-old, stuck in the purgatory between childhood and adulthood, old enough to know better and too afraid to know how. (Child self, meet shadow self.)
Everyone else skated out in groups of four. Skate, fall, slide. But there was an odd number of us that night, and instead of adding myself to a group, I ended up having to go by myself. I felt sick. I felt the kind of panic that makes you give-up before you try. The back-down-the-ladder-on-the-high-dive panic. The sing-too-softly-on-the-choir-solo-auditions panic. The turn-your-head-the-other-way-when-he-tries-to-kiss-you panic. The I-want-this-so-badly-I-can-hardly-stand-it panic.
Sometimes the shadow self triumphs. Eventually you step off the high dive, sing your heart out, close your eyes and soften your lips. Eventually you skate, fall, slide. And no one laughs or points or shakes their head. The next group lines up, and the next, and then you again. Skate, fall, slide. It looks easy, but there's not much in the world that's more difficult than letting yourself fall and getting back up again, no matter who's looking.