The following letter was written to Episcopal Collegiate Middle School Head Chip Parks and Interim Lower School Head Elizabeth Desmarais by Wendy Ward, the mother of 6th grader Mirielle Clayton.
October 24, 2014
Mr. Parks and Ms. Demarais,
My daughter plays football for the 5th/6th grade Episcopal Wildcats team. I am writing this from the stands as they warm up for their first playoff game. I am filled with so much gratitude for this school and the teachers, administrators, parents, and coaches within it. I would like to share with you her story and to highlight along the way the many people who have been supportive.
It all started when basketball season ended in Winter of 2014. Mirielle plays on the girls basketball team and during recess she and several of her friends played basketball with the boys. When basketball season ended the boys started practicing football at recess. She asked to play and they told her that ‘girls can’t play football.’ It was the word ‘can’t’ that bothered her, I think. She apparently studied the problem for a while and then a few weeks later I got a call from a teacher at the school who told me, confidentially, that she supported Mirielle’s petition 100%. My reply was….what petition? She had 50 signatures (teachers, parents, students) on a handwritten petition that said “Girls should be allowed to play football.” I had no idea! We had a long talk about her desire to play, that a petition may not be necessary, and that maybe we should just ask. So I made an appointment to talk to Ms. Kennedy, the Head of the Lower School.
Ms. Kennedy reported that she was not aware of a reason why she couldn’t try out but that she would ask. I gather there was a meeting, the league was consulted, and in the end we were told that she could play. We were given a few fairly humorous (and anonymous) reminders. First, we were told that if she needed any special equipment, we would need to purchase it ourselves (her PCP told us nothing was required at this age). Second, we were reminded that this was tackle football not flag football. I certainly hope whomever that reminder came from has seen her play. She plays Defensive Tackle and Offensive Guard and I have seen her sack the quarterback – twice in one game! She holds her own out there. Yes, yes, she is aware this is tackle football. Finally, and this is my favorite, we were reminded that there is no crying in football. Well, I just had to laugh out loud when I heard that one. I’ve watched every Super Bowl for the last 30 years. As I recall, there is a LOT of crying in football.
Once Mirielle knew she was able to play, she told me her plan; Because of course she had a plan. She was certain the boys had played several years already and she needed to catch up. She asked me to enroll her in two football camps during the summer (which I did, Episcopal’s and Pulaski Academy’s camps). She also asked to watch football replays with her step-father so he could tell her about the plays and strategy. Which she did. She was nervous but prepared on the first day of football practice.
Coach Jemerson and his team of coaches are volunteers–parents of kids who are playing. I cannot thank them all enough for the culture that they have built on this team. They have provided a culture of equality. She is worked just as hard as the boys, praised when she does well and given feedback when she makes a mistake, just like the boys. She feels such pride when she says she is part of the team. Issues that could have been a problem (like the locker room) were clearly worked out before she got there–when I asked her about it, she looked at me like that was a ridiculous question–of course she and the coaches waited 5 minutes for the boys to change and then they all went in for a locker room talk. She has a locker in there for her helmet and pads,just like the boys. She changes at home later. Not one problem situation has arisen. Not one. I thank Coach Jemerson and his team for that. I was so very happy that they interviewed him for the news, not just her. What he said for the cameras was totally true. When he heard a girl was trying out for the team, he was excited–the more players, the better. Period. What a powerful statement.
Mirielle also speaks very highly of Coach Seale, the line coach, who has worked most directly with her this year teaching her blocking strategies. I was there when he asked her to play Guard. She was so happy and excited! He also has her playing Defensive Tackle and for many of the games she played almost the entire time. He tells the line that even though the quarterback and receivers often get the credit for the scores, it takes everyone on the team to win a game. If the line doesn’t hold, the quarterback and receivers can’t do their jobs. In fact, she quotes him all the time— ‘it takes an entire team to win a game, and only one person not focusing on their part to lose a game.’ These are life lessons being learned during practice. Important life lessons that will last a long time. In the end, she is stronger, more skilled, and thinks more strategically now. And she knows her coaches gave her those skills. She speaks so highly of them all. With this kind of support and encouragement–she has put her whole heart into it. She is just filled with energy and enthusiasm for every practice, every game.
In an era when youth can get pretty full of themselves pretty quickly, I can honestly say that Mirielle has stayed pretty grounded through all the attention she has received. She was a bit bewildered that several pre-K students keep asking to get their picture taken with her in uniform. She was confused by the media attention and wasn’t sure what to say. She has told me multiple times that she just wanted to play and now that she does she is just part of the team, so what is the big deal anyway? She has grown up not seeing barriers, limitations, and inequalities. The culture at Episcopal is a big part of that. Yes, the boys told her girls can’t play football and teased her a bit at first. But Day 1 of the first Episcopal football camp one of the coaches of the summer camp (different than the current coaches but nonetheless important) overheard and told the boys they were being sexist, that she was as good as they were at the skills, and they should be glad to have her on the team (fyi – she thought the word sexist was one she was not allowed to say out loud, so she spelled it for me. Hilarious.). That was the end of the boys’ comments about girls not being able to play.
I do not diminish my child’s grit and determination when I say that who she is as a person is a reflection of the experiences she has had growing up including not just her coaches in summer camp and the current season, but also some important interactions with the teachers at Episcopal. Her current teacher, Ms. Schallhorn has taught her the value of creative thinking–thinking outside the box, approaching solutions from a different angle. Ms. Jennings (fourth grade) taught her about government and avenues of social and political change (hence, her petition last year). Ms. Feland taught her the importance of challenge and how to approach problems positively and systematically. Ms. Nichols taught her the value of self-reflection–thinking through her own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with an eye toward the kind of person she wanted to be. Ms. Scanlon in first grade taught her the love of learning–the beginning of her avid reading hobby with her first chapter books, the applied math, understanding history and the world. And our beloved Ms. Fortenberry who was her first teacher in the Lower School and also the teacher she had the year her father died. She gave her the gift of love and acceptance upon which her self-confidence to this day is built. Not to mention the science, math, choir, reading, Spanish, PE, chapel, aftercare staff, and other meaningful learning experiences along the way.
When I watched the gym erupt at the Lower School pep rally when Coach Jemerson introduced Mirielle as the “most physical player “ on his team, I was overwhelmed with the notion that she is not the only one who has benefited from her playing. The female students in the room will hopefully take this experience and apply it in their own lives–perhaps they will enter fields of science, subspecialties of medicine, other areas where women are underrepresented, or seek leadership roles uncommon for women to hold. The male students in the room will hopefully take this experience and apply it in their own lives–bringing acceptance and a sense of equality and teamwork into board rooms, science labs, and medical fields.
As I sit here while the team is warming up, I recognize that I want our team to win. Win! Yet at the same time I know that regardless of how the game ends, we have already won. My daughter Mirielle plays football. But the real story is the culture of the school she plays for and the teachers and coaches and administrators who have supported her all of her years there. The real story are the boys who are her teammates who play with her and accept her, and the parents and students cheering for her and for the team in the stands. The real story is what comes next–when these students all grow up and take their places in the world. Who knows what powerful good can come from such a simple thing as letting a girl play football.
Wendy L. Ward, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
Professor Associate Director of Faculty Affairs
Department of Pediatrics, UAMS College of Medicine