39: Defining Moments

39: Defining Moments

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

Defining Moments

Happiness is a way of traveling, not a destination.

~Author Unknown

I used to love to run in gym class. Middle school was hard for me, but when it came to jogging around the track, I was always way ahead of all the other girls. To hear my effortless breathing in sync with my dingy-white Keds hitting the ground was such a freeing feeling from all the cares in my adolescent world. I could get lost in my dreams of someday becoming good at something and making my mom and dad proud.

While growing up, my parents’ priorities didn’t include their children being involved in after-school sports. My suit-and-tie stepfather was fifty-eight years old when I was in middle school, and my reserved mother was no soccer mom. We weren’t a hands-on kind of family that enjoyed spending quality time with one another. It took a voice of encouragement from one of my peers to help me believe in myself.

Pam and I met in Mr. Felton’s seventh grade science class. I wasn’t used to his style of teaching. All that was missing was a megaphone when he announced in a no-nonsense voice, “Oh, by the way, is there anyone who would be willing to help JoAnne? She isn’t doing very well in my class.”

I remember glancing over to see the popular, smart girl raise her hand without hesitation. Pam and I had attended different elementary schools and we were never formally introduced until that day when we made plans to start studying together. My new friend not only helped me with my science assignments, but more importantly, I learned about the deeper significance of love, acceptance, and understanding from our budding friendship.

I still remember feeling a sense of “we are all in this together” from the blissful applause of my classmates. Mr. Felton had asked me to stand up at the end of the semester to share my unbelievable accomplishment. Pam was a big part of my cheering section as I giggled proudly, “I brought my grade up from a C- to a B+.”

We were only thirteen years old, but Pam seemed to know I was struggling to find my strengths.

“Oh, come on,” she tried to convince me, while we hurried down the hall one day and headed off in different directions to our next classes. “We need someone to run the 600 in our track meet today—one of our team members is home sick.”

Part of me was excited that she had thought about asking me, while at the same time I tried to find excuses not to go. Looking down, I pulled the bottom of my short dress out with both hands as I squealed, “I can’t wear this!”

I often wore dresses to school, and that day was no exception. Being able to shave my legs for the first time was a step closer to feeling like I was part of the girlie-girl league, a full-fledged teenager.

But Pam wasn’t going to let me get off that easy, and she seemed to have all the little details worked out ahead of time. “Just grab your gym clothes from your P.E. locker and I will meet you out front after school.”

Out of earshot, or so I thought, my words echoed in the now almost empty corridor, “My mother won’t want to pick me up after the track meet.”

“Don’t worry, I got it covered. My parents like you. They will take you home,” she shouted back before shutting the classroom door behind her.

Halfheartedly, I whispered, “Okay, I will call my mom and ask her permission to go.”

Since science was the only class we ever had together, Pam didn’t even know that I loved running. But there was still a part of me that was afraid I would fail or embarrass the team if I did poorly.

There was no way for me to get cold feet now—Mom didn’t say, “No.” My heart flip-flopped as I started to feel excited, then quickly turned to anxious thoughts as we got closer to my first track meet.

Mingling with the other team members on the sidelines, I looked in amazement at the activities happening simultaneously around me. From the freshly chalked white lines circling the track, to the pole-vaulters, high jumpers, and long-distance runners, I felt like a child getting her first glimpse of a three-ring circus. I was trying not to let on to any of the other girls that I hadn’t ever run in a race, when Pam gently nudged me. “It’s your turn. I know you will do well.”

Listening carefully as the coach told me where to stand, I wondered why the girls from the opposing teams were being staggered in different starting positions on each lane of the track. But it wasn’t really the time or place to ask any questions. I just waited until I was told to ready—set—GO like a filly sprinting towards victory. Each time I would pass another girl, I didn’t have a clue if I was winning or losing, because we had all started out in different spots. But I did hear the crowd of people shouting my name as I continued to keep a steady pace down the middle of my lane. For me, it was an exhilarating feeling to have this opportunity to run as if there were no tomorrow.

Just as I reached the finish line, Pam and some of my peers rushed over to congratulate me. Bent over with my hands on both hips, trying to catch my breath, I looked up surprised as it was announced over the loudspeaker that I had won the race.

Although distance separates our life stories now, I know in my heart that Pam and I will always share a special bond. Since that day, my life has been deeply enriched by a friendship that was meant to be—a part of God’s plan. These days, when Pam and I get the chance to reconnect, it’s as if we are those two thirteen-year-olds again, making up for lost time.

I may not be able to wear a size five dress anymore or run quite as fast, but etched in my soul from the middle school years is a sweet reminder that “we are all in this together.” I can still hear the encouraging cheers as I face the challenges, as well as celebrate the triumphs, that my life brings.

Believing in ourselves is not about winning or losing—it’s about the way we choose to run to the finish line.

~JoAnne Bennett

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