March 8, 2021. It is International Women’s Day, and this gets me thinking. Thinking back to events fifty plus years ago, thinking of a special mentor and important lessons learned. Which, in my case, needed to be relearned.
11 years old, I am in sixth grade at Mill Bay Elementary. I can’t specifically recall much of what we study, other than the basics of reading and writing and math. But Helen Gosnell teaches us all the subjects, so obviously is very capable and clever.
Sport is already a huge part of my life. Unencumbered by computer screens and cell phones, social media, texts, and Instagram, instead my time involves endless free play, alone or with friends. Time to experiment, to seek answers, to develop skills. I can throw, catch, dribble, shoot, kick with both feet, skate, stickhandle, swing a club, run all day. Quite pleased with myself, I gain a certain prowess, happy to enjoy a good number of athletic successes.
January. Global warming not yet a thing, southern Vancouver Island becomes a winter wonderland. Snow falls and stays on the ground for weeks. Temperatures drop. Across the road from school, the bottom end of the farmer’s field first floods and then freezes over.
It is a perfect world. Our own outdoor rink. A winter full of cold, crisp days, the sun streaming down, the wind in our faces. Impromptu hockey games morning, noon and after school. I am in my element, zipping around the ice, controlling play, puck on a string, notching lots of goals.
One lunchtime, unexpectedly, Ms Gosnell joins us. I am at first skeptical, then smirking. Bundled up against the chill, her hair in a scarf, and in white figure skates from another era, she certainly doesn’t look the part. Besides, in my blinkered world, girls and women aren’t athletes, don’t play sport.
The game gets underway. Skates bite into the ice. Ksssh-ksssh-ksssh. Sticks battle for the puck, which skitters free.
And then here she comes. Gaining possession, Ms Gosnell breaks away from the pack of bodies, is quickly out in the open. I find myself the last defender, gliding backwards. With quick crossover steps, I close the space. I fully plan to steal the puck and head back on attack. Then it happens.
“It” is a dazzling, lethal combination of speed, change of direction and skill. Swinging wide, she then slips the puck through my legs, dances around me to collect it, dekes the goalie and scores into the empty net. All as I flail about desperately, completely losing my balance, crashing unceremoniously in a heap.
Red faced and embarrassed, I slowly get up. My mates are in absolute hysterics, doubled over with laughter. My plight is the talk of the school for days on end, of the youngster, pride severely dented, put firmly in his place.
June. Six months pass as I look for revenge. My chance comes in the annual staff-students fastpitch game.
Bottom of the final inning. Earlier, I hit a double, help us score a run. But now we trail 4-3. Runners on first and third, two outs. I step to the plate, the result in the balance, the whole school watching in anticipation.
It is fate. Ms Gosnell takes over as the relief pitcher. Alarm bells should be ringing, but my pea brain has obviously too quickly forgotten my prat fall, of being turned inside-out, on the ice months ago. I have no thought other than smashing the ball over the fence. Being the hero.
The first pitch is low. Ball one. The next, via her smooth windup action, comes quickly, catches the outside corner. I swing too late. Will need to adjust.
Pitch number three is another fastball. I time this one well, just miss connecting, foul it straight back over the screen. Down to my last strike.
I dig in. I just know I will hammer the next offering. I cheekily inform the catcher I plan to go deep. After all, surely, I should be able to hit a middle-aged lady’s pitching!
Ms Gosnell winds up and releases the ball. I anticipate another heater, this one heading over the heart of the plate. I coil up, drive forward and swing with all my might.
Nothing. No glorious crack of bat on ball. No white orb heading for distant pastures. Instead, spinning viciously in the batter’s box, I completely lose my footing, finish up on my butt in the dirt. The ball flutters softly, tracing a lazy arc. It is an ignominious end, as I am victim to a dreaded change-up.
Even worse, I am once again the source of considerable merriment. My ears burn as I dust myself off. I glance at Ms Gosnell, who offers a wry smile.
Two weeks later school finishes for the year. Ms Gosnell moves around the classroom, says her goodbyes. I remember her closing words as if they were yesterday. “Always respect the game, and always respect your opponent”, she suggests. “Believe in yourself. Confident is good, cocky is not.”
I think of her every so often, especially at this time of year. In my mind, while sometimes working at the blackboard, more often she is effortlessly flying up and down the ice, or ragging the puck, or efficiently turning a double play, or working the strike zone. I ponder how she might fare in the current era, given the many sporting opportunities now deservedly available for females of all ages. Quite well, I venture. In fact, I would bet she stars.
And, while doing so, like women all across the globe, she would no doubt successfully handle numerous other tasks and responsibilities with aplomb.
This I know to be true. After all, while managing an entire class, she still finds time to dish me up two large helpings of humble pie.