A Half Older

It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead,
We push ourselves ahead.

From “The End of the Summer” by Dar Williams

Sunday: A Different Ball Game

On a cool, cloudy afternoon, the third Sunday in September, Beth, June and I stood on the playing field of the same middle school that hosts the folk festival. This time we weren’t there to hear a bluegrass band, however. We were there for June’s first-ever soccer scrimmage. She played soccer the fall she was three and a half and again the spring she was four, but she’d lost interest and skipped a year before deciding to give it another try. Kindergarten soccer is different than preschool soccer. There are games against other teams, like in t-ball, and this appealed to June. Also, she wants another medal to hang from the beams of the lower bunk bed.

Four or five of June’s preschool classmates are playing on a Saturday morning team but she wanted to do ballet this fall, too, and that conflicted with that team’s practice time, so we signed her up for a Sunday team. I think I was more disappointed about her not being on a team with friends than she was. It felt like all her friends being in the other kindergarten class all over again, like a missed opportunity. It’s sad to see them go their separate ways, knowing how easy it is for kids to drift apart and forget each other. Noah barely remembers any of his preschool classmates who didn’t go to elementary school with him.

But June was not indulging in any melancholy thoughts on the soccer field. She was happy and excited and ready to play. It took a while for us to locate the maroon team, but once we did the coach handed out their t-shirts and sat them down in a circle to talk about what was going to happen and then got them doing drills right away.

Beth and I watched from the sidelines. When the coach said they were going to play sharks and minnows, Beth said, “I hope she’s not still afraid of this.” June hated sharks and minnows in preschool soccer. The sight of the coach and other players pretending to be menacing sharks was just too much for her. This is how it works: All the players have a soccer ball they dribble around the field. The coach, who’s the original shark, tries to take their balls. Once a player’s ball is taken from him or her, the player becomes a shark too and goes after other kids’ balls, until all balls are out of play and everyone is a shark. June showed no signs of ever having been afraid of this game, but she did forget the rules. When a fellow player kicked her ball away from her, she said indignantly, “That’s mine!” and the coach had to come over and explain the game to her again. Once she understood she was right out there trying to kick other kids’ balls away from them.

For the next drill, the coach balanced a soccer ball on a cone and arranged the players in a circle around it. They were to kick their balls at it all at once and try to knock it down. On the first try no-one’s ball went anywhere near the cone, but on the second try one of the taller boys knocked it down. He knew it was his ball that did it, too, because he pumped his fist in the air.

After almost an hour of practice, it was time for the game. June’s team divided and half their players went over to play another team while half of the yellow team came over to our part of the field. The yellow Cheetahs looked a little more organized than our team. They had appeared to be well into practice before our team had even assembled and they had their names and numbers written in marker on the backs of their shirts. The coach was also more intent on diving them into offensive and defensive lines that ours was. “They’re going to get slaughtered,” I predicted to Beth.

But they didn’t. The Maroon Pumas won the match, 3-1. This was mainly because of the boy who knocked the soccer ball off the cone during practice. This kid has moves. He scored two out of the three goals, and made a few good saves when they ball was near our team’s goal, too. (There are no goalies at this level.)

Considering she was the second smallest kid on her team and has had no soccer instruction in the past year and a half, June did great. She had no fear of getting into the mix, ran after the ball, and usually remembered which direction to kick it when she got the chance. (This is a big issue with five and six-year-old players. At halftime our coach’s whole message was which direction to kick the ball.) She even kept control of the ball and moved it toward the right goal for at least five yards at one point.

Beth kept yelling, “Go, Junie!” whenever June had the ball and then said to me, “I really shouldn’t be so into this.” I was quieter but I was keeping score in my head. Even though I thought I’d keep score at June’s t-ball games, I never did. I don’t think anyone did. Because every player swung until he or she got a hit and the inning ended after everyone had a turn, and fielding was such that almost everyone advanced a base whenever anyone hit the ball, scores were high and kind of meaningless. This was a different ball game, however. And I saw in a way I never really had before why soccer is the game of choice for elementary-school age kids all over suburban America as well as much of the world. There aren’t as many rules to master and five-year-olds can play something more closely resembling the real thing. Play was unpredictable and fun to watch.

By the end of the game, June was flagging. She’d been running around for an hour and half and she was ready to be done. Every time play slowed or stopped, she plopped down on the grass and started to pick blades of it. She’d jump up every time the ball started to move again, though. When the game was over she was excited. “We scored a goal!” she said. I informed her they’d scored three. She was surprised. She’d missed that. She’d heard the other team cheering when they scored and thought maybe the Yellow Cheetahs had won. No, I told her, her team won. Even when she thought they’d lost, she was pleased with her performance, “It was like my brain just remembered—this is how you play soccer!” she said, all smiles.

Friday: The Half-Birthday Girl

June climbed into our bed at 6:50 on Friday morning. “It’s Friday!” she announced. She’d been looking forward to a classmate’s birthday party that afternoon all week. It felt funny, thinking about sending her to this party because I barely know the girl, having met her once at the Open House but I know she and June have been playing together and sitting with each other on the bus. June’s never been on a play date or to a party at the house of a kid I don’t know, but I guess there’s a lot of that in her future now that she’s in a big public elementary school and not a small co-operative preschool. I learned last weekend when we were all having pizza at Sasha’s house that June’s new friend lives next door to Sasha’s family. Somehow this made it a little easier to think about leaving her there.

“It’s also your half-birthday,” Beth reminded June and told her she’d picked up the cupcakes at the grocery store the night before, while June was in bed. June had selected them ahead of time. They were patriotic, with red and blue sprinkles on white frosting and topped with plastic flags and statutes of Liberty. They were in the frozen section so they might have been left over from September 11. (Would anyone buy or sell patriotic cupcakes for September 11? I’m really not sure, but I don’t want to think they’re left over from the Fourth of July.)

June wanted to go see them immediately. She thought she remembered there was only one with a flag. “And do you know who gets it when there’s only one?” she asked.

“The half-birthday girl,” Beth surmised, correctly.

Then June realized it was also the first day of fall. “I’ve waited so long for this day,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

Because after fall comes winter and then spring, she answered, and she can go sledding in winter and her real birthday is in the spring. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Beth sang. June is always looking several months ahead, wanting whatever it is that comes next. She is good at beginnings, pushing herself into new things. She loves kindergarten and gets on the bus each morning without a backward glance, even as I linger to watch her walk up the steps.

It was an odd afternoon and evening. A power line went down near our house and the power went out three times, staying out for all but an hour between 2:30 and 8:30. Later I joked on Facebook that the alternation between light and dark was an equinox-themed performance art piece by the power company. Our street was blocked off, too, so June’s bus was forty minutes late. I thought she’d be rattled because she was the last time the bus was (much less) late but she seemed to shrug it off. She now knows the bus is sometimes late. When she got home we had to hurry to the party, taking the long way because our most direct route was blocked to pedestrians as well as traffic.

She did balk a little at being left at Keller’s house. There was only one other guest she knew; the rest were Keller’s preschool friends. So I stayed until she felt comfortable and then left her with the rest of the cape and tiara-wearing five and six year olds. (It was a She-Ra themed party.) There was no power at Keller’s house either. I approved of her parents’ spirit of adventure in continuing with the party.

After I fetched June there was just enough time to heat up dinner from cans (luckily we have a gas stove) and to eat her half-birthday cupcakes before I put her to bed. She fell asleep by the light of the camping lantern in the hall, soon after commenting, “I’m a half older now.”

Saturday: Tiny Dancer

On the sidewalk outside the dance studio, June had a flash of nerves. Beth scooped her up into her arms and reminded her she often felt a little nervous before starting something new but it usually passed quickly. I wondered if it was just too many new things and too many new people in a short period of time. June’s friend Gabriella (a.k.a the Ground Beetle) is enrolled in the ballet class but was spending the weekend with her grandparents so she had to miss the first session.

“How old are you?” The receptionist wanted to know, as we were checking June in and ordering her ballet uniform.

“Five and a half,” June answered, after a pause.

The receptionist wanted to know why she had to think about it and we explained she had only been five and a half for a day.

Soon after this exchange, Talia (whom I will always secretly think of as the Mallard Duck) and her father and brother walked in the door. I knew her mom was thinking of signing her up for this ballet class but I hadn’t wanted to get June’s hopes up so I had not mentioned it to her. June was delighted. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here!” she exclaimed. And like that, all nervousness was gone.

Parents watched the lesson through a large window in the studio wall. We could see but not hear, so we had to guess what the teacher might be asking them as they sat in a circle and raised their hands in different combinations. Beth said it was like watching a silent movie, and Talia’s dad, Tom, laughed. We watched as the eight girls, mostly in pale pink or black leotards stood in a circle holding hands and standing on their toes and as they stood with their feet flat on the ground and bent their knees deeply. They walked in a line, watching themselves in the mirrored wall and mimicking the movements of the teacher. They practiced at the barre. June stood for an astonishingly long time on the toes of one foot with her other leg extended behind her. She only quit after her leg started to tremble visibly. A couple of the girls had trouble paying attention and wandered around the room instead, but June was all focus, sometimes smiling, but more often looking dead serious.

At one point I thought I heard the music to the Mexican Hat Dance but I wasn’t sure if it was coming from June’s studio or one of the other rooms. The two-to-four year old class was practicing nearby. June told me later they danced to a song from The Lion King and to “Penny Lane,” one of the few Beatles songs she can identify. When class was over, the girls got their hands stamped and then lined up to take a running leap toward the door.

June was not as elated as she was after the soccer game, but she was quietly satisfied. As we were on our way out, the receptionist asked her how it went and she gave her a thumbs up. “So you’ll be back next week?” she asked.

“Yeah,” June said in a matter-of-fact voice.

And she will be back, back to school, back to soccer, back to ballet. It should all be routine now that she’s gotten the last of the beginnings under her belt. After all, it’s just that time of year and she’s a half older.