THROWBACK THURSDAY – I told someone last week that my best friend in grade school used to call me Porky. I was a stocky kid, and when we fought, which was often, she used to call me it and snort at me. Then Dad asked me if there was any truth to it. I said, yes. It definitely brought to my attention that maybe I needed to eat less and/or move more. There was undeniable truth to the fact that I was a little on the beefy side, yes, yet the greater truth was that this girl was clearly the furthest thing from my best friend.
When I was growing up, I used to rank my friends. Ask my sister. She used to peek into my diary, which I think I kept from grades 4-6, and she’d see the listing of friends and then something so corny along the lines of “I love basketball” or so goes her version. The rankings would change weekly or monthly. Tricia, Chris, Jenni, Molly, Colleen, Mary Irene. This is the number one reason why we build teams based on friends, and it’s also the reason that I can come in with a hammer and say to the mothers and the girls, “It’s time to break the group.”
Familiarity breeds contempt, particularly when you are in a confined situation. And what I mean by confined is that you’re in a small town, a small school, a small class, and everybody knows everyone’s business for several years. There’s really nowhere to go until you go to a big high school like Troy High, which probably saved me. No more middle school drama over who liked what boys, who danced or made out with whom, or who made fun of the jeans you wore too much. One girl in this photo called me “Chick-Check” by my jeans that had a checkered pattern to them. It was humiliating to me because I didn’t have many clothes or jeans, and there was a contingent in school that kept track of your clothes, particularly for a boy who had only one pair of jeans and he wore them something like 42 days straight. Even though he was a total wise ass who never did his homework, he wasn’t a bad person. He dated a girl who was by far the Queen Tormenter of our class. When she went to work on people, I called her out on it. The only problem with that situation was that she was our point guard. My father was our coach. He didn’t want to see or accept any drama. My only alternative was to stop hoping she’d give me the ball, and get a lot of steals and rebounds.
The big school and change saved me, not from my friends, but from me, because I was changing in terms of my goals in life, and not all my friends understood me or the fact that I’d stand up for other people who were being picked on regularly. I also didn’t understand their motives and ethics anymore, or the fact that they were being mean or insecure because something bad was happening to them, or it was just a tough time or maybe because they just liked being mean. All I know is that the freedom to go and pick new friends in a vast pool of kids was as frightening as it was liberating.
Granted in the spring of my ninth-grade year, I’d just returned from a traumatic move to Buffalo, NY, which did not work out for our family at all. I was so against being away from our perfect world in Wynantskill, NY, that I ate in the carousel in the high school library by myself. I rarely spoke. My sister was the only one of us who tried to make the most of it. This explains why we moved back eight months later. I returned to the community that I loved, but by then, my old friends and frenemies – some pictured here – were in their own worlds at new schools or with their new agendas in our shared school. The girls in this photo above packed a lot of drama and emotion into junior high, which, for me, was the most miserable time in my life. Boys, parties, risk-taking, rabble-rousing – everyone was on the hook one minute, off the next.
Today I am only in contact with one and half of the girls in this photo. Jenni Shea Landers, who is stuck with me for life. At any hour, on any day, I can call this woman, who took care of me better than any friend ever. And I love Molly Malone. Still do. Even though she caught the ball and dribbled into the corner every time she caught the ball in grade school, I still loved her and wanted her on my team.
The biggest take-away for me is that I wanted to be with my friends up until a point. The pivot took place in junior high when we were fighting so much that it was more of a loss to be with some of them most of the time, than it was to feel any value-added. Even our parents would say, “Don’t be friends with her anymore” or “I don’t want you hanging out with her anymore,” and within days, we were back hanging out. They didn’t give us a platform to complain. They just said one way or another, “Stop your complaining, do something else with your time alone or with a new friend.” When your mother is a nurse on the critical care and ICU floors at the hospital, and the strong nurse called on to push bodies down to the morgue, you really can only go so far with friend complaints. When your next door neighbor’s mother chases you with a wooden spoon right up to your front door, which you slam in her face to spare yourself a good whacking, it’s a good time to re-assess the level of stress friends put you under. I think I told my mother that the other mother chased me down after her daughter kicked me in the face, and my mother said, “Find a better friend.”
So this is what I tell parents who beg me to keep all their girls together from grade 4-grade 8 so nobody’s feelings are hurt. I tell them that I get why they want to be together, as that former ranker of all things friends. I also know how healthy it is to say we are going to mix things up because they’re together far too much, and it’s not good for them anymore. I also tell them that when we go up to Harlem and the Milbank girls beat us with one hand tied behind their backs, the parents had better not blame the coach. The girls and the players picked the teams – they fought for their feelings to be put first. Whenever I acquiesce to a parent on keeping kids together for three years, same team, same situation, I basically say, “When things go awry, which they will, I don’t want you to come running to me or blaming the coach. You picked these friends, so make it work or find better ones.”
I have become my mother, and the mothers of my friends, who were all saying the same thing. Figure out and identify your real friends. If they’re great basketball players and great friends, you are lucky. Or maybe you need to separate the two and play basketball with some of them at a higher level and just hang out with the others not in a sports situation if they’re not so serious about their sport. You can be a great friend and also be a player who can adapt to be on any team. A loyal friend like Jenni Shea won’t want to hold you back because she’s off doing what she does best.
And if you’re not so sure who is a friend and who is not, and they’re calling you names like Porky, it’s always best to consider free agency.
Maureen Holohan is a former college and pro basketball player turned writer, director and founder of momotion.com.