The very important first girls high school soccer game of spring

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I landed in Korea in September to teach English and the next few weeks were the worst in my life.

It’s March now, so I survived, though I don’t talk about those first weeks. I’m sure I’ve had a different experience than my English-teaching cohorts, simply because my school boasts an incredibly unique personality: its kids live at the school, wake at 6 a.m. for chapel, and are good enough at English to be taught literature in the language. There’s also girls and boys high school soccer teams, which I’m coaching this spring.

I landed in Korea in September to teach English and the next few weeks were the worst in my life.

It’s March now, so I survived, though I don’t talk about those first weeks. I’m sure I’ve had a different experience than my English-teaching cohorts, simply because my school boasts an incredibly unique personality: its kids live at the school, wake at 6 a.m. for chapel, and are good enough at English to be taught literature in the language. There’s also girls and boys high school soccer teams, which I’m coaching this spring.

This is where I can offer an example of the unique experience the school’s given me. Take the other day at girls practice, for instance, when the team’s manager, who is called Innie, like a belly button, and becomes a player in practice should the mood strike her, witnessed a scrum for the ball going on not far from her. She decided she’d join said scrum and that, hell, the best way to make her way toward it was not to run but to skip, while waving her hands in the air to the beat of a pleasant tune she was in the middle of humming. And at the end of the practice, during a time in which the girls always share three positive things that happened during the session, Innie raised her hand and burst out, “We got new uniforms!” The mob erupted. “WOOOOOOO!!!!”New uniforms aren’t not positive. But I never considered them a reason for euphoria. To conclude, more than once in the two weeks since we’ve started practice, I’ve felt like I imagine a dad raising a teenage girl for the first time does: out of his area of expertise, by a far distance.

This weekend, we had our first game. Prior to it, rumors swirled. The team we were playing was the conference’s perennial powerhouse. It was full of girls who ran five miles for fun. Their best player once fired a shot straight through an opposing goalie’s stomach like a cannonball and killed her. I didn’t consider the possibility that exaggeration was linked to any of these tales, and – our girls being composed half of girls who had played a mere four games on a big field during last year’s season, half of girls who’d scarcely touched a ball prior to the last two weeks during our five or so practices – the night before our game, hiding under my bed praying didn’t seem like an enterprise that was uncalled for. The next day, I put on what I thought was a bold face. Perhaps some girls didn’t buy it and my real thoughts about our chances were contagious, though, because when our bus arrived and we saw their turf field and their organized warm up drills and some girls who looked like they could possibly be the murderer, from a seat behind me came the cry of, “Hota Kay,” a phrase often spoken in Korean soap operas by prissy girls in distress, which means “What to do?”

We were given ten minutes of warm-up time. I said a few words I hoped were wise. I watched them go in one of each girl’s ears and out the other. The game began. Hindsight always feels incredibly blurred to me. This is the blur I remember.

The other team blitzing us in the first few minutes, aiming a few close-range shots at our goalkeeper, English name Diana. Diana, never a soccer player before, deflecting them away – once, twice, three times. Lowering to the ground and crying and clutching her wrist, unused to being shelled with shots and jarred. Probably needing to leave the game.Deciding not to.

The ball ping-ponging around a bit on our half.Finally landing at the feet of our offensive players.Them connecting passes. Navigating through the other team’s defense a few times. One time about 20 yards from their goal. Shooting – but missing.

Their team sneaking two goals at the death of the first half. Our team orchestrating threatening attacks. Inexperienced and tired, giving up four more goals.

Finally, our captain, Geraldine, dribbling past one defender…two…winding up to shoot dribbling past a last defender lunging because she thought Geraldine was winding up to shoot…really shooting – GOAL! Girls hugging and jumping up and down and celebrating, none more than Innie screaming over and over, “Ger-al-dine! I – LOVE – YOU!” Them: 6 Us: 1. Them: Smiling. Us: Smiling just as much.

What am I supposed to write in this paragraph? That I’m a person who only 23 years of life has turned into a cynic? Unhappily, it’d be true. An effort to be funny drove some of what I wrote above describing the time before the game, but I really didn’t think victory was achievable in this game –at most I was hoping all the girls, after getting hammered, would feel OK.

I don’t know why. Because while at practice there have been moments that made me laugh in exasperation – there are more that have made me smile.  Moments of the experienced helping the inexperienced improve. Of everyone concentrating and working hard.Of all the girls enjoying being together, sincerely happy for the chance to do something as simple as play on a soccer team.

One moment stands out. It’s the end of one practice, and they all have just finished running a set of sprints and are about to run another.  One girl, the youngest and smallest on the team, is supremely winded, and perhaps about to decide she won’t run again. At this, Geraldine grabs her hand, and when the next sprint starts literally pulls her to run – fast –  and damned if they don’t cross the finish line ahead of every single one of their teammates, still hand in hand, the greatest and the least.

Like many twentysomethings teaching English in Korea, I came here at least partly for adventure. Sometime this year, I must have forgotten an important part of that. Must have. For isn’t one of the most important parts of an adventure, a journey into the unknown, confidence that things will end up not just OK, but happily ever after?



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