Meadville Tribune

Opinion

November 20, 2013

Outside the Box: Keep playing your game, no matter what anyone says

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

Two Sundays ago, I watched the Allegheny College women’s soccer team win the North Coast Athletic Conference championship at Robertson Field. I’d given my camera to a student who was covering the event and watched her dash down the field to photograph the hugging mob of players and spectators.

A few minutes later, I turned and noticed one player with her legs and arms wrapped around a man, hugging him tightly as he spoke in her ear. I lifted the only camera I had, my iPhone 4s, and recorded the moment — two frames.

I approached the young woman, wearing the No. 20 jersey, and asked her name. Brianna Layman. The man? Her father, Jeff Layman. Ever the curious journalist seeking — perhaps, sensing — a story, I asked her about the moment I’d photographed.

“He was giving me a kiss and telling me how proud he was of me and how far I’d come,” Layman said.

How far you’d come?

In fifth grade, Layman explained, she had a coach who told her soccer wasn’t her game.

“He just didn’t think I had any talent in soccer but soccer was what I wanted to do, so I kept playing.”

Before she left to see other family members and gather more hugs, I asked for her phone number. I might want to follow up with more questions.

I couldn’t get her story out of my head. As I pursued the story, I interviewed the team captain, Michelle Holcomb, a senior. She, too, had a coach when she was younger who didn’t believe in her abilities on the pitch.

“You’re just not cut out to play competitive soccer,” Holcomb said, reciting her coach’s words. “Every one of us on this field has a story like that.”

I thought of my own parallel experiences with people in positions of authority or influence who had cast doubt or dumped buckets of cold-water negativity on my dreams and aspirations.

I imagine we’ve all encountered people who have offered us unsolicited, often uncharitable, advice. They seek to define us, shape us with their limiting words and narrow vision. They tell us what we can’t do. They tell us how we’re lacking in some way, missing the mark, falling short.

Too tall. Too short. Too young. Too old. Too soon. Too late.

Women don’t do that. Or worse, women can’t do that. Boys don’t do that. You don’t have the right training. You don’t come from the right family. You don’t have enough money. You’re not creative enough. You’re not smart enough.

When I was nearing college graduation, I was looking for an internship. I found a great opportunity: a Pulliam Fellowship. There were 10 positions each at two different papers, one in Phoenix, one in Indianapolis. They were paid summer fellowships with mentoring on a major metropolitan paper. I wanted one.

I showed my adviser the fellowship application. He told me I’d never get it. He told me I didn’t have the experience or the pedigree for such a lofty program. He told me that fellowship was for students who’d already had internships at USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

I applied. I earned one of the 10 spots at The Arizona Republic.

When I arrived, I learned I’d received the top, coveted spot on the state desk. I was naïve; I didn’t understand the implications. My fellow fellows wanted to know how someone like me — with no prior impressive internships — got the spot.

I asked my editor.

I had first choice, he said. I read your résumé. You speak multiple languages. You scuba dive. You fly planes. You’re an athlete. I knew I could send you anywhere and you’d come back with a story.

My editor didn’t look at what I didn’t have; he looked at what I did have. He read between the lines — and yes, thought outside the box. He saw my potential and gave me the opportunity and confidence to stretch as a young journalist, to grow, to channel my curiosity and chase stories wherever they led.

A good journalist is curious. A good journalist is persistent. A good journalist rarely takes no for an answer.

And champions, like Layman and Holcomb, refuse to let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do.

As a college athlete, I remember well our final day at the Pac-10 Rowing Championships. We were eight rowers lying on our backs in circle, heads facing in, the bare soles of our feet pointed out. With closed eyes, we listened as our coxswain described our race and we visualized every stroke — visualized crossing the finish line first.

The coach of the team we’d soon meet in the finals approached. He mentioned how nice it was for us to be at the competition, then hinted that we were wasting our time since his team was favored to win.

Psychologically super uncool. Not to mention discourteous and unsportsmanlike. And intended to get under our skin and unhinge us.

It made me want to beat his team.

In crew, when a team wins a race, each member of the losing team literally gives the winner the shirt off her back.

I still have the shirt from the woman rowing three-seat on that favored-to-win crew team.

I wouldn’t have had half the fun or achieved much of what I’ve done in my life if I’d listened to others when they tried to define me, deny me, dissuade me.

It’s my life. I’ll live it. You live your life. And be blessed living it. It’s yours to define.

Take a cue from the fifth-grade Brianna Layman. Keep playing your game, no matter what anyone says.

And take inspiration from the college sophomore and NCAC champion Brianna Layman.

“Succeeding feels so much better when you prove people wrong.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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