The teacher teaches and, in so doing, learns from her student

Cameron loved dresses.   She liked to wear makeup and fussed over her hair.  She loved it when it was straightened and hoped fervently that it would stay that way.  When we traveled by plane, I would buy her and Kylie “trash magazines;” the ones full of celebrity gossip.

Cameron liked having her Mama paint her nails in bright colors.   She didn’t like wearing earrings but she liked rings and necklaces and made colorful string bracelets to wear around her wrists and ankle.

Cameron and Kylie spent part of their summers watching cake shows, wedding shows and America’s Next Top Model.  After she died, I learned the one big secret she kept from me:  she liked to watch The Bachelor on her computer on Saturday and Sunday mornings when I was at yoga.  Imagine that.  Of all the trash TV I tolerated, she was probably right to hide that one from me.  Kylie knew.  She joined in when she was home!

Cameron fell hard for a boy band.  She was learning to play the guitar and to tap dance.  She played the piano by ear and sang with an a capella group. In her first Coffeehouse appearance, she had the solo in 7th Avenue’s opening number.

People called her a jock.  They saw her size, her strength, her physicality, her skill and her determination and they labeled her.  She knew it.  I don’t think it bothered her but she did comment, in her last Christmas letter to me, on how everyone thought of her as an athlete even though she only played one sport.  She had even told me that if this year’s fall musical was one on “her list” she’d consider trying out for it instead of playing soccer.

Cameron knew who she was and had the strength of self not to be bothered when others only saw her as having a single dimension.   She was also strong enough and secure enough to help me see when my sense of what she should do was clouded by my own limited vision.

Cameron made the Varsity basketball team her freshman year of high school.  It was good at the start.  Kylie was a senior and Cameron knew well all the other players on the team. She’d gone to Strom’s basketball camps since she was in the 3rd grade and she felt like she was ready to succeed. In a stroke of perverse luck, her former best friend (and now freshman nemesis) was out with an ACL injury which would dramatically reduce the drama and tension that their playing together would have created.

By Christmas it had all gone sour.  Cameron hated going to practice.  She loathed playing in games.  Whereas Kylie lived in a “happy bubble” and was never criticized by Strom, Cameron was a one of two freshman who played and, in Strom’s mind, who weren’t living up to their potential.  She would silently count down the hours remaining until practice, dreading its onset.  And then she would endure the ride over with Kylie in silence – all the while knowing that Kylie was psyched to be going.

I’ll never forget the game when Strom pulled her from the floor and berated her by saying:  “You are either lazy or you just don’t care!”  It was a home game against John Carroll or maybe it was Bryn Mawr.  Either way, it was embarrassing as she had former club soccer teammates on the opposing team.

She and Eboni both got benched that game –  in the first half.  Out of stubbornness, Strom would have refused to give them any more minutes that day. His assistant, who’d been on the receiving end of many of his tongue lashings herself, knew that in order for the Gators to get the win, they needed both freshman back on the floor in the second half.   Mercedes coached the girls on what to say at half-time so they could get back in Strom’s good graces and get back in the game.

I would later learn that, by then, he was right … she didn’t care.

After the season ended, she told me in one her letters how much it hurt to have Strom favor Kylie and berate her.  Logically, she knew he loved them both equally and that Kylie’s seemingly exalted status was hard earned.   Kylie didn’t want to be a starter that season; she would have been more content to have not played at all as had been her role the previous year when the team won the IAAM Championship.  But, when Strom told her he needed her to play, she did and she played right up to the edge of her ability.   Cameron, on the other hand, was often too terrified of making a mistake to play freely.   That’s not to say there weren’t times when they were in sync, when it was fun, when her ability and desire overtook her fear.  She won one game in the Christmas tournament’s final minutes almost singlehandedly.  It was Cameron they looked to to pull down key rebounds when the other team had to foul to regain possession and she calmly sunk her free throws and helped her team inch further ahead.

That one long-awaited season took so much out of her.  Kylie never wanted it to end and Cameron couldn’t wait for it to be over.  I wasn’t at all surprised when she told me she didn’t want to play AAU basketball in the spring.  Although she loved her AAU coach and the fact that her teams had gone to Nationals each year for the past three years, she needed a break.  Starting freshman year with back to back Varsity seasons in soccer and basketball had been very, very draining.

We were all excited about a spring of coming home right after school with no practices to account for and no tournaments and travel on the weekends.  It would be the final few months of Kylie’s time in high school and all three of us knew we’d so enjoy a slower pace and more free time.

It was in the middle of that spring that Cameron started talking about quitting basketball all together.  She was thinking about not playing Varsity basketball as a sophomore.  I didn’t get it at first.  I should have but I didn’t because my thinking was clouded by what I thought, by what I wanted, and by what I perceived as her duty to Strom, to her school and even to her grandmother.

Gram had stayed with us all winter during that year, when Kylie and Cameron played together. Gram loves her grandchildren and watching them play ball was something that brightened those long winter days.  Sure she grumbled some about how Strom pushed Cameron, but deep down we all knew coaches can be tough in season – it’s their job to encourage young athletes to do more and to become more.

I told Cameron I wasn’t sure if she could quit.  I asked her to think about her obligations to the larger community and wondered aloud to her if she was being selfish.  I asked her if she was shying away from the first athletic endeavor where she didn’t just show up and become a star. Where things didn’t come easy.  Where a coach said he wanted more.  To succeed on Strom’s team, she’d have to work harder, think more and take some risks.

We worked through these questions on paper of course.  We always exchanged letters when there were things we needed to talk about.  It gave both of us space to contemplate what to say and what the other had said.  Letter writing was always our tool for communication.

I told her in one of my letters that I wondered if this was one of those parenting moments where I needed to hold her “feet to the fire” so to speak:  To push her to do what she thought she couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.  I told her I was wondering if it was my role to make sure she didn’t back away from the challenge.  I knew SPSG sports were a loving, supportive environment where she and he both wanted her to succeed.  Would I regret letting her walk away?  Would she regret it?

Layered on top of all this was my friendship with Strom.  I knew how much he loved basketball, loved coaching, loved his players.  I thought about his needs, too.  His team would be greatly diminished without Cameron there.  She was a hard worker, always prepared and invested in the success of the team.  In short, a perfect role model to younger and older players alike.

When I finally admitted to her that this was the first time in my life that, as her Mama, I wasn’t clear what the right answer was, that I didn’t intuitively know what my decision should be she stopped me short by sharing her clarity.  She asked me to consider what I had in it?  In her mind, she couldn’t see why was leaving school ball was such a momentous decision when we had both been in instant agreement that giving up AAU ball was the right choice?

The teacher teaches and in so doing, learns from her pupil.

I was confused and conflicted because I was inserting my needs and my thoughts about the needs of others rather than thinking of her.  When she called me on it and offered me the chance to reflect on my indecision, the answer became clear instantly.  Of course she shouldn’t play if she didn’t want to.  It was then that she told me she wanted to learn to play the guitar.  The next season, after soccer ended and basketball was beginning, she joined the a cappella group.  She knew it was time to grow, to shed some of her earlier “jock skin” and to grow more fully into the young woman she was becoming.  She had found her voice and her voice gave me wisdom.

Of course, her quitting the team helped Strom too.  We didn’t know it at the time.  But the immediate effect on her was very noticeable. I remember waiting for her one spring day in the car outside the gym when she went in to tell Strom she wouldn’t be playing the following year.  According to her, he told her he’d likely never understand her decision but he’d surely support it as he only wanted what was best for her.  What resonates in my mind is what she said to me when she got in the car and heaved a sigh of relief: “He doesn’t hate me Mama.”

After that, when he was no longer “Coach” and she was no longer one of his young players to be molded, their friendship grew.  It became more like Strom and Kylie’s friendship.  Neither wanted anything from the other.  They had history in common, they had interests in common and they both cared deeply for others and each other.

On the day Cameron died, Strom was met at his office door by a senior who had captained the soccer team and played basketball for three years.  Sarah had played with both Cameron and Kylie.  When Strom saw her standing there, his first words to her were “I never told Cameron I loved her.”    I don’t think he had to.  She knew.  She knew because although he didn’t know the part of her that loved dresses and make up and secretly followed “trash TV,” he knew enough to listen when a young girl was brave enough to stand up for what she knew was right and true for herself.  That’s love.

Today Varsity basketball tryouts begin at SPSG.  Tim and Kylie never knew the depths of the pain she felt in her first season on the team, her only season on the team.  She didn’t want others to know. She kept that uncomfortable side of herself private, even from them.  It may be that each of them thinks that had Cameron been a junior this year, she might have re-joined the team and be in the gym today.  I know better.  She made me promise to never tell Strom how painful that season was for her.  I’m glad for that now: for his sake, I’m glad.

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