By Jeremy McKeen
My back right pocket has been full of hair ties since the fall of 2009 when I became not only a father of the most amazing baby girl, but the head coach of the Girls Soccer program at the high school where I teach.
Most coaches’ pockets fill up pretty quickly before a game— bracelets, earrings, watches, and—after coaching the boys for seven years, I was used to having jewelry of all types thrown at me as the student-athletes subbed in. Pockets are like that—each one has its purpose and meaning, and, since my chiropractor forbid me to carry a wallet in my back pocket, I had to reassign things, which led me to the easy back-reach of an elastic.
That first season as the Girls’ coach, however, found me with enough leftover hair ties and barrettes to field several strings of top players.
Rings, earrings, and bracelets they always remind you of; hair ties, however, are a communal thing.
Two years later I was filling my back right pocket with hair ties for my own little girl as well as handing them out in class (every now and then to girls as well as boys) and, of course, on the field after a rushed bus ride and a long day where putting your hair up just didn’t make sense until the ref called for captains. My first yellow card actually came from a referee who had to “card the coach and not the player” because the barrette my goalie was wearing was made of hard plastic.
The greatest lessons I’ve learned about relating to, learning from, and the how-tos of empowering girls and women came from those days on the field and at home.
I had already learned many of the best lessons of life from women, whether it was my mother, godmother, wife, college advisors, former bosses, current boss, or many of the best professors in undergraduate and graduate school—as well as musicians, artists, writers, poets, and comics. I was awash in an ocean of females who had taught, raised, trained, advised, and made me a better human (ay, a better man).
And I was ready to learn from my own daughter (later, daughters) and student-athletes.
Now I’m not one of those hard-headed steeped-in-gender bias cavemen who needs the “gentle teachings of woman” to soften my unibrow worldview. But life among women is decidedly different than time among men, and I can tell you that the atmosphere of a boys’ bus differs greatly than a girls’ (the latter smelling better almost 100% of the time).
And my education came (and still arrives) from the world around my student-athletes and daughters rather than just from them directly. They teach me how to empower them, and when to shut up and let them empower themselves.
Throughout five seasons, over a hundred games, and countless practices and workouts, I’ve learned that personality is more than–and a mixture of–gender-based treatment. We can’t escape that. But we can aspire to a new normal where, from infancy, we can sort out what we expect of girls and women, which should be the same ambition-driven talents and goals, free of gendered norms. This is difficult for most and impossible for some.
Talking with parents who didn’t think their girls should play soccer–you know, because boys play sports and girls have to learn how to take care of the home–opened my eyes to the cultures that still exist and convince our students that they really are beholden to their gender. I would usually counter with a long-winded compliment of how integral the athlete was and how she helped the team to new breakthroughs, and how much the sport helped her in life and school, that we needed her and that her identity—like most boys’—included excelling at soccer.
In that, I learned that the struggle for females is still new and real to each generation, even here in good old “Blue” Massachusetts. Pressure from religion, culture, tradition, and determinate discrimination is a longstanding pastime that exists everywhere and at all times it seems; including catcalls, aggressive and unwanted touching (from both genders), sexual pressure, and the usual list of daily assaults that, if I hadn’t seen or heard it myself, I wouldn’t have recognized it going on so damned much.
Because of this I’m even more vocal with my male students in that they need to hear what the world is like for their classmates, and that there is a lack of privilege in certain areas that we’re not aware of, while at other times we assume a protective role that isn’t always necessary. “Damsels can do it their damn selves,” as the new anthem goes—or is revived—in our post-Women’s March America.
And for my own daughters who are now seven and two, I have the highest of expectations for their potential—not because they are female—but including the fact that their female history has with it a story that is heavy and awkward.
So as I braid my first-grader’s hair (and my toddler screams for me to leave her’s alone), I take my cue from my children—along with their brother—that, at their natural state they are capable of more than any challenge or limitation we can put on them, and the more we expect of and offer to them, the closer they are to free, comfortable, and successful. The same rule applies to every student who ever joins my class and team.
In those first years of coaching I felt like I was given a companion gift to accompany my daughter’s birth, as if I was brought to the field of girls playing soccer to start a new chapter in my own education. Life had already given me almost a decade of teaching, coaching, and advising, and now I was on my way to learn as much as I could before I was able to turn it into fatherly, teacherly, and field-appropriate wisdom that I would then constantly build on, until this day, and until my last season is over.
In the off-seasons I still carry a back-right pocket of hair ties not only because my daughters need them, but because, well, I just do. It’s become a habit like anything else, and one day I’m sure I’ll retire it, but until then, it’ll be a small contribution from the later-half of my young adulthood when my life began again on the field and at home.
Jeremy McKeen is a high school English teacher, coach, musician, and father of three. In addition to his writings on The Good Men Project, he is also a Lead Editor. He has been featured on and written for Huffington Post, Salon,Sammiches & Psych Meds, Ravishly, YourTango, Scary Mommy, BLUNTMoms, Yahoo! Parenting, HuffPo Parents, The Motherish, MockMom, The Gloucester Clam, Take Magazine, and maintains his own site, Nerdy Dad Shirt. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.