Jewel Really Can See Russia From Her House
In this latest in her series of exclusive blogs for The Boot, Jewel tells us how playing soccer was a sweet release from the frustrations of home. The game also gave the singer an eye-opening look at a foreign culture living right outside her Alaskan front door.
As our bus slowly cleared the hill, certainty began to grow boldly in my chest. It was a feeling mirrored by each girl, the mere anticipation causing us to perspire. Bare legs sweaty and sticking to the naughahyde upholstered seats.
I mean, we were the Homer Huskies, after all. And they were – what were they? They didn’t even have a mascot, I wagered – as their school was very small. It was part of the state’s public school district, but it was an all-Russian school so small that all ages fit in one classroom. It was the only school for the remote village, the name of which I can’t recall.
There were many Russian Villages where I was raised. We were all used to seeing them in town, shopping in brightly colored clothes or at the post office with their scarves covering their heads. They were always smiling and friendly, and a normal part of our community life. But they did not live in the city or go to school with the other “American” kids.
Don’t get me wrong, they were Americans too – but more like the Amish… They lived in separate communities with their own schools and followed their own strict religious teachings.
But group sports in Alaska were not like in the rest of the States – we did not have many neighboring towns to play against, so we would drive long distances just to play anybody willing. Most of the season we played ourselves. My school class would split into two small groups and we would kick the ball around with as much enthusiasm as we could muster, but it lacked the snap and passion inspired by having a clearly defined enemy. We needed an “us” and “them” to fully wet our appetites for victory – and now it seemed we would be given that chance.
We were on our way to play the finest that a small, rural Russian village in Southwestern Alaska had to offer in female soccer teams. After an anticlimactic speech given by our science teacher-slash-soccer coach, we boarded our big yellow bus. We didn’t need a rousing speech to get us motivated. No. We were already drunk on the new and heady delirium of feeling like a team for the first time. Team! Go team! I was on a team! I couldn’t get enough. I had never been on a team before. I felt the pull of the group spirit moving like a body bigger than mine, and I was glad to be swept along with the tide.
It was the first year after my parents divorce, and I was having a hard time adjusting to my new school and to life without my mom. I didn’t fit in at home or at my new school, and so to now find myself on a team, was a great feeling! I was part of a team! I was bonded to these other kids. It was hard to describe the exact feeling, but I imagined I knew now the pride that those inner city kids I saw on the news felt being jumped into their first gang. Uh-huh. I felt that cool. We were that cool. We were a bonded group of warriors. We could chew through iron. Our feet had wings that could kick goals through the toughest of goalies. I imagined we were the most bad-ass collection of rough and tumble white female fourth graders going, and we just couldn’t help but know it.
The ride started out grand – lots of chatter, lots of laughing. The sun shining in through the bus windows on us, as if on us alone – like the Gods were shining their light upon their Chosen.
But soon the paved road gave way to hard packed brown dirt, and the bus was forced to drive slower. Hours began to accumulate on a washboard dusty road, and soon I felt my teeth would surely rattle out of their sockets.
We kept a brave face though. Despite the hours of grueling, windy road, we swallowed back nausea with each turn, trying to relive and force that natural state of joy that so easily saw us off on our journey. Like kids willing themselves to forget they know there is no Santa Claus, we, too, were willing ourselves to stay as excited and as fresh as the moment we left. Unwilling to acknowledge that we were already wishing we were split into two small groups and playing each other half-heartedly in the small field behind Paul Banks Elementary.
Despite entire bags of shared Sour Patch Kids and our best efforts, we each dozed off, one by one, until stirred finally by Mr. Klein quietly saying in a half whispered tone, “ok, girls, getting close.” We sprang into a state of heightened alertness, and our once waned bravado returned to us, as talk of how we would “cream those Ruskies” began to abound with all the confidence of only the truly inexperienced. The final approach was a steep hill, and with baited breath we waited for it to clear, so we could finally lay our eyes on the unsuspecting victims we would lay claim to.
The village was small. A loose knot of plywood building set into the thick Alders that marked that part of the country. Our bus rattled up and let out its deep sigh as it settled to a stop. We could see all the girl’s soccer team lined up – and the sight made us break out in laughter with a single phrase uttered by Sara Jenkins: “Are they wearing dresses?!”
Indeed, they were.
How preposterous. We knew their religion was strict, but we assumed they would be allowed to wear proper attire for a sport game. But we were mistaken. There they were, lined up in an assortment of brightly colored traditional silk dresses that touched the ground. Floral prints and hand-embroidered belts and scarves covering their long hair. They were pale and shy, staring at the ground. The image emboldened us to no end. An instant rush of superiority flooded our very souls. We in our knee socks and matching shorts and shirts were simply no match for this rag tag crew of girls wearing dresses. Had it dawned on us to feel sorry for them, we would have. Instead we were like sharks that smelled blood in the water – eager for an easy kill.
There were no locker rooms, no place to get ready. We simply left our stuff on the bus, marched on the field, took our positions, and within minutes of us arriving, the whistle blew and we began playing.
I loved soccer. The exercise made me feel free. Escaping that one bedroom house behind my uncle’s machine shop in town where I lived with my dad and two brothers was a welcome escape. I had been sleeping in the hall closet, while my brothers had bunk beds built in the water closet.
That tiny apartment was filled with so much confusion and sorrow that I turned to the outdoors for an escape. Running made me feel free, and I could forget anything that was going on at home, and better yet, all of my pent up frustration could be taken out on the field – and I was rewarded for it. I was an aggressive player who loved our coach comparing soccer to full contact football. We had to be aggressive to get the ball, and running straight at the person who had it was my idea of heaven. I could take it. I had no fear. I was ALLOWED to take it. Better yet – encouraged. I felt like I became a different person on the field – braver, stronger, faster. Not a child at the mercy of parents, but an athlete in charge of her own fate.
I took my place on the front line and prepared to open a can of whoop ass on the girl across from me. As the whistle blew I noticed she lifted her dress a little. At first I believed this to be a feminine gesture, but then I noticed there was nothing dainty about it. The skirt lifted to reveal not tennis shoes, but cowboy boots. Shit-kicking, steel-toed cowgirl boots that looked like they had been worn into battle many times before. I looked up suddenly into the face of this girl and saw finally the competitor I was up against. The next thing I knew the whistle blew, and what felt like lightning struck my bony shin. In a flash she was gone. With the ball.
I turned around in a daze and frantically searched the field for the possessor of the checkered ball so I could seek it out and destroy the target. I turned my head to the left. I turned it to the right. I saw several Russian girls running full tilt, their scarves trailing like wind socks stirred up by the force of their moving bodies. But no ball. Suddenly “GOAL!” was shouted in Russian and English as my teammates and i stood dumbfounded as we didn’t even see a ball on the field, much less know a goal was being kicked until suddenly it appeared right in front of our unsuspecting goalie.
No high fives were shared by the other team. They just ran back to their starting positions, and curtsied coyly to each of us and then trotted by, lifting their pretty dresses to reveal their gnarly boots. I hoped they sprained an ankle in those damned things.
We looked to our coach, and he seemed as taken aback as we were – except for one major difference: he thought it was cute. He thought it was charming somehow. “Aww, look – the kids’ first brush with possible defeat. Ah, the great drama of life unfolding!” He had a bemused look on his face that seemed to betray he was measuring this experience for us by the great ruler of “Life.” I did not care for that approach. I needed this. I squared off to my counterpart before me, determined to win this time. Shouts of “shake it off girls” and “come on, we can do it, don’t let ’em get to ya” were hollered across our half of the field.
The whistle blew, and before she had a chance to kick me, I struck first, nailing her in her shin and swiping the ball. I was headed down the field when an angry whistle was blown and I was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The game continued and as I watched from the sidelines I found it impossible to follow the ball. It would disappear and reappear somewhere else as if by magic. My team would run after a Russian girl only to find she had no ball, we would redirect, only to hear “Goal!” shouted yet again – but not before I saw it – the slight of hand. The “tell” that would be the team’s downfall. I hoped.
The other team had been hiding the ball under their long dresses. They would run in tight huddles, and then pass it under another girl’s dress, while yet another girl ran as if she had the ball, misdirecting us all, causing us to give chase to the wrong person. Oh – they were good. Very good. Using an unusual handicap like running in a skirt due to strict religious practices and turning it into a secret weapon.
I got back on the field and we all took our proverbial gloves off. Both teams kicked and pushed and elbowed our way to exhaustion. The Russian team creamed us. I mean they absolutely dominated us. At the end they were awarded the small plastic gold trophy, the coaches shook hands, and we loaded the bus. I can’t remember if my teammates were disappointed or not. I mean, we were disappointed because we hadn’t won, but I think everyone had fun.
As for me, I was surprised by my reaction. I was not bitter I lost. It turns out I didn’t need the win – I needed the release. I enjoyed playing no-holds-barred with a team of girls who seemed to need it as much as I did. Maybe more.
I was a girl adjusting to life with a single father in a new town. But they were girls adjusting to living in the modern world, and watching it and all its privileges pass them by. Most of them would be married by 16 and pregnant the same year. Their lives would be dedicated to and dictated by strict roles of childrearing and worship. They would go to town and see the other women holding down jobs, having careers, listening to music on their walkman and CD players, and they would be confined to the strict paradigm already laid out for them by centuries of practice. If that’s what they chose.
But that day, they would be allowed to be just girls, running around, playing a game, free of race, gender or creed. They were athletes in charge of their own destiny. And they owned it. We all did. If only for the few hours we had on the field.
The Hollister Girls and me in my new Reebok tennis shoes – perfect for a game of soccer.