There was a girl in my neighborhood growing up who was as sporty as any boy on the block. She wore baseball caps every day, and knew all of the teams.
I remember the day that she gave me hell for wearing a Cincinnati Reds plastic helmet that my stepbrother had given me. It wasn’t a real batting helmet — it was for show only, the kind that kids wore, not thick enough to protect you from an actual wild pitch. It cracked down the middle of the crown when I dropped it on the cement to prove to her that I didn’t care about the Reds.
I was a Kansas City Royals fan, and she was too. For her, it was because she followed the sport and Kansas City was a good team then, and the city wasn’t too far from us in Iowa. For me, it was because they had my initials on their caps, and I thought that was really cool.
I learned to be a baseball fan because it matched my new hobby of buying and wearing Kansas City team products. But Sarah, my neighbor, was a fan because her love of the sport pumped through her veins. She was the prototypical “tomboy,” but even as she matured, she may not have ever outgrown her penchant for wearing baseball caps and spitting on the ground when she wanted to make a point about something.
I’m not sure anyone in my neighborhood ever classified me as a tomboy — we kids didn’t tend to talk in those terms (or worse) even though we had a larger-than-life tomboy in our midst. The other kids and their parents probably just thought I looked really cute in my Kansas City cap and jersey, and even that cracked red plastic helmet looked sweet on me.
But Sarah was the real deal, and I knew it. She was four years younger than I was, which put me higher on the pecking order, but I looked up to her and I think she knew that. She was unabashed in her decision to act as much like a boy as she wanted, to play games with the boys and be a dedicated athlete, to drop everything and run inside to catch a baseball game on TV.
I haven’t heard anything about Sarah since my family moved out of that neighborhood shortly after I started high school. I had no idea what happened to her until curiosity struck and a recent Google search showed that her last name appears to be the same as it was when we were kids, that she set several softball records in high school and college and she’s now an assistant coach at our high school.
I don’t know if she’s a lesbian or transgendered, or struggles with either notion. Although neither of these scenarios would surprise me. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’d landed way on the other end of the scale, philosophically: as kids, we all knew her parents were strict and we were all afraid of her father, who didn’t hesitate to yell to get his point across. Her parents were said to be pretty judgmental about the fact that my mother was raising us without much money and without a husband, just a stone’s throw away from their traditional values home.
I’m reminded of Sarah when I occasionally see a young kid I know now, who despite all genetic indications to the contrary, seems intent on presenting herself as a boy, sometimes calling herself by a male name. This kid is lucky, maybe; she has loving, supportive heterosexual parents who let her wear what she wants and have her hair cut how she likes it. They don’t freak out when she writes “Matthew” on something she’s drawn instead of the rather feminine name she was given.
I have no idea if “Matthew” would approve of my use of the female pronouns here; I also get the sense she’s not ready to be asked about it, certainly not by me. Her mother, telling me about the situation when I first met them, explained it this way: “We don’t like our gender.” I don’t know how deep that dislike runs, if it’s a phase, or if it’s part of something bigger and more serious. They all seem content to let it play out and deal with what comes.
When I was young, I didn’t like my gender, either. I never wanted to be a boy, or to seriously present myself that way. But I had no affinity for the fact that I was, no escaping it, a girl. I didn’t want anything to do with most of the girl toys and games — I didn’t want a Barbie (although I had lots of baby dolls when I was younger, even then preparing myself for motherhood) and I didn’t want anything to do with make-up. Gossip bored me and flirting disgusted me. I wanted to be myself, not look or act differently to impress boys. I thought the whole deal of being a girl really sucked.
Imagine my shock when nature decided that I would have to come to terms with my girlhood at a way early age, bringing puberty on like a bad dream when I was only 10 and still convinced I had a couple of years of freedom left. I remember the date, and note it somberly each year, recalling the bitter morning when I woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the bathroom and discovered all chances of living the female equivalent of Peter Pan’s existence were gone.
I’ve made peace with the unfortunate cyclical side effect of being female and recognize it as a necessary evil to someday accomplish what I’ve always wanted — to be a mommy. At some point long ago I stopped hoping to have only boy children, and now can easily see myself with daughters. In fact, some days I’m not really sure what I’d do with a son, although I know I could teach my boy what to do with a baseball.
One thing’s for sure, though: In a nod to Sarah, whatever kind of tomboy she is now, there’ll be no Cincinnati Reds hats in my house if I can help it. Nothing but KC caps for my kids.
Kristina Campbell still looks really cute in her Kansas City cap. She’s rooting for the Cubs to go all the way in the World Series, because it means anything is possible, because Chicago isn’t far from Iowa either, and because those C’s on their caps may as well stand for Campbell. Alphabet Soup appears biweekly and its author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.