“Like a girl”

* update – read this about a 12 year-old Little League baseball player *


A few years ago, I was ploughing up and down the pool. It was close to closing time and I was putting in my mile-a-night lengths.  As I turned, I saw a girl preparing to enter the lane next to me. She was around thirteen or fourteen, the same age as my daughter. She was at the neighbouring school, so we knew of her. And as I returned to my steady progress, the shock wave hit me. Sky Draper had just swum past me, with a power and determination that seemed impossible from a still slight body. She swims like a girl – and much more.

Sky is an inspirational triathlete, perhaps all the more so as she has, like my daughter, recently developed Type I diabetes. But she isn’t simply a symbol; there’s more to her than that. I like what she says about her comeback and about herself:

The most important message the narrative gives us is hope; which in my eyes is the most important concept we cling to as humans … I’ve made a heck of a lot of mistakes, and yet learned from them to an unquantifiable extent … I have no regrets about taking time for myself … Sport is what I do. It’s not who I am.

You can read more about her here.


I remember my daughter’s first parents evening at the very beginning of Year 7. A mother spoke up, asking how her daughter’s homework could fit around her exacting gymnastics regime.  The girl managed somehow, and walked on the stage last week, a little while before my own daughter, to receive her prize at their final Speech Day. But now she’s not just a gymnast: Jess Gordon Brown is also an inspiration, winning gold in her category in the national schools Judo championships. She fights like a girl.


Finally, on two occasions I have had to fight to regain my ability to walk, involving a long rehabilitation, painful physiotherapy and endless hours at the gym after rupturing my patellar tendon. I needed something to inspire me.

The first time round, I received it from Dame Ellen MacArthur who was, at the time, completing her amazing Vendee Globe success. Seeing her struggling against anything that nature could throw at her got me out of my chair and back on my feet.  She sails like a girl.

The second time round, hour after hour on the running machine and cross-trainer, I looked up at an enormous poster covering most of the wall of the gym: Dame Kelly Holmes, winner of two gold medals at the Athens Olympics.  And as the stupid, endorphin-triggered grin spread across my face, I kept my eyes up towards Kelly. She runs like a girl.


If you’ve noticed the repetitive theme, you may be interested to watch this video, which (while produced for overtly commercial purposes) shows how and why the expression “like a girl” must mean no less and no more than “like a boy”.

I am a swimming teacher, specialising in stroke development. I notice that in the squads of eight, nine, ten and eleven year-olds, the girls are powerful, fast, determined winners. Boys are often behind them.  Then something physiological happens: that’s natural. More importantly, something psychological can happen – or perhaps social. Some girls begin to doubt they can make it. They begin to question the power of their own bodies. They may worry about what exercise is doing to them. Our job, my coach told me, was to help them over that hump, to keep them believing in themselves until their bodies could confirm that they were as good as they could be.

I wince when I hear adults talking with concern about girls developing “swimmer’s shoulders” or getting too muscular. Girls don’t need to hear that. Speaking to Jane Gordon in 2007, Emma Watson expressed this powerfully:

It drives me nuts when friends say, ‘We can’t continue because sport gives you muscles and it’s so unattractive, and you get sweaty.’ For some reason girls seem to think it is unfeminine and they worry about being ‘pretty’. But I feel the most pretty when I come off the pitch after a hockey game and I have got pink cheeks and bright eyes. Sport really makes me feel good about myself.

I cringed when I heard Sports Minister Helen Grant suggest that women who feel “unfeminine” when playing sports such as hockey, tennis and athletics could take up other activities like “ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating.” Just silly.  Tell Steven McRae or Edward Watson that ballet is feminine. Tell Jess Gordon Brown that gymnastics are uniquely feminine. There’s nothing particularly feminine about the bruising encounters on the roller derby track. And as for cheerleading: just Google a combination of “cheerleaders” and “exploitation”.

The last paragraph of the article by Hannah Betts on the England women’s rugby team says far more for equality and inspiration in sport:

These are not representations of women we see in magazines. Something powerful is happening here – to do with body image and body fact – and that rare thing: something truly beautiful for little girls to aspire to.

Sport is inspiring – and for all of us, not just the ‘stars’. Strong bodies are healthy. And being physically active is good. We mustn’t make half the populations of our classrooms feel as if it isn’t.

Disturbing Learning

This is one of the most powerful and troubling works of art I have encountered. Take the time to watch the whole video (just over nine minutes).

The video is a good starting point: it allows Kara Walker to offer her point of view. This is important, because there is an article in the Huffington Post which, while it acknowledges that the sculpture “is successful in that it’s jarring”, laments Walker’s imprisonment in the dominant narrative and lack of imagination. Or, read in another way, the article illustrates the success of Walker’s art: it moves Jessica Ann Mitchell to imagine much more than is represented. Mitchell’s article seems to miss much of what Walker has thought, said and done, glancing off the dazzling white surface of the main sculpture.

There is also an article about the exhibition itself, and the unease created by viewers taking photographs of each other beside the sculpture. To the writer’s mind – and to mine – the sculpture has worked again.

Britain needs a work like this. We are vaguely aware that the wealth of many of our cities came from slave labour, but it all happened a long time ago, a long way away. The Caribbean is, for most of Britain’s population, a remote area; slavery a Bad Thing alongside others in the ‘1066 And All That’ of our history. Which is why I also believe that American literature is important in our young people’s liberal education: while Britain profited from a distance from our colonies, America has to lie on the soiled mattress of its exploitation of fellow human beings. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ couldn’t have been written here but marks a point in many children’s education where they begin to ‘get’ what we are capable of doing to each other, good and bad.

On Mountains

When I began my very first conversation with my very first class, I showed them a picture of my favourite mountain: Snowdon.  Or, to be precise, the part of the massif that forms one side of the Snowdon horseshoe. I’d taken the picture on an ascent just before I began at their school, a kind of pilgrimage to my muse.  I showed it to them, and later to their parents, as a metaphor: the children’s biggest challenge wasn’t the little bump in the foreground (aka SATs); it was the summit behind (preparation for secondary school) that would require a transformation.  Confidence, maturity, organisation, to name three requirements.  But most of all, self-belief.

This week, for the first time since then, I went to see my muse.  I set off from the Youth Hostel in Llanberis at just after half past five, taking advantage of the long daylight hours at this time of year.  At the outset of this ascent along the Llanberis Path, I felt my age.  My legs were stiff, my muscles burning with the effort of simply walking up the tarmac incline. I wondered how on Earth I could hope to reach the top.  It didn’t seem to get any easier: I frequently stopped for breath and to release the lactic acid from my complaining legs.

But once the tarmac gave way to stony path, at least I could look back at the misty town below, still sleeping beside the lake. I’d made some progress.  Not that my legs were going to admit it.  Finally I found the Halfway House: a landmark and a psychological boost. I was on familiar ground and felt I’d earned a proper rest.  The mist lay over the hills like a duvet on a restless sleeper, appearing to move up and down as I watched.  I caught sight of a halo in the mist: a rainbow around my long shadow.  It felt unearthly.  And quiet, so quiet.

Full of Jaffa cake bars, tea, apple and Emmental, I continued towards Clogwyn, my next milestone.  I was having to stop at increasingly short intervals as my legs and lungs struggled to cope.  I felt every year of fifty.  The path led under the railway: it was here that the pain began to feel worthwhile.  At this point, the view turns from the outer slopes of the massif to the inner, jagged glacial mouth of Snowdon.  Through the frame of the railway bridge, I saw the sea of sunny cloud over the valleys below.  This is what I’d come to see and be with.

I also knew that I was only a short, hard slog from the top.  Still far slower than I’d been on my first ascent, half my lifetime ago, I walked in one effort to just below the summit.  And I stopped to look and listen.  Never had I known the mountain to be so still, sunny and solitary.  We were alone, at least for that moment.  I walked to the very top and began to consider my next move.

Snowdon has many routes up and down: it was only nine and I had the rest of the day to fill.  I considered the easy route down to Pen-y-Pass: the Pyg track.  But I’d done it too often. I also considered the route along the arête of Crib Goch and Snowdon’s smaller neighbour, Crib-y-Ddysgl.  But this, the site of my first ever mountain walk, twenty-five years before, felt too dangerous for me on my own.  My left knee has been too often ruptured and repaired and my quadriceps didn’t seem trustworthy.

Instead, following the advice of my pocket guidebook, I chose the other side of the horseshoe, following the Watkin Path down to Bwlch y Saethau, and then along the ridge to the twin summits of Y Lliwedd.  My first steps were hesitant, traced and retraced as I tried to find a safe way down from the summit. Every way seemed to lead me to treacherous scree, on which my uncertain feet might slip and send me flying.  I found a way, eventually, using my backside as a fifth point of contact on many occasions.  My legs shook, my hands clutched at rocks and more than once I wondered if I should just turn back.

What kept me going was the guidebook’s assurance that this was easier than Crib Goch and offered as good a view – and the sight across the range of a path that led safely down to the Miners’ Track, if only I could reach it. I kept on.  Here, a quarter century ago, I had jumped and bounced through the uneven and mobile rocks underfoot; today I felt my mortality clinging closely to me. Eventually, the scree gave way to a path and I quickly found myself at the feet of Y Lliwedd’s first summit.

This was the point at which I remembered why I came to climb here so often.  It was a risky scramble, but I could gain height rapidly, using my swimmer’s superior upper body strength to haul me up rocks that the dry weather had made into a solid certainty against my boots.  I almost felt as if I were flying up the rocks, so quickly was I ascending.  It made me feel younger and alive.  I could have chosen the safer route to the rear of the arête, but I wanted to look over the edge, to see the sheer drop down.  Again and again, where the route offered safer choices, I kept close to the knife-edge.  Having worked so hard to get there, I wanted to experience it all.

After the second summit, dropping down to Cwm Dyli and looking down to the Miners’ Track below, I felt suddenly sad.  I didn’t want this feeling of freedom – from fear, from a preoccupation with ageing joints and aching muscles, from the day-to-day concerns – to end. But it does, it always does.  The gentle walk back to Pen-y-Pass, and then the six mile slog along the road to Capel Curig, gave me time to think about the day.  I’d come a lot further than the distance.  I had begun the day thinking that my pain and fatigue were insurmountable.  I’d faltered, believing myself no longer able to scramble across rock faces.  But finally I’d surrendered myself to the situation and the possibility that I was fitter and braver than I felt.

I didn’t do anything that might kill me; I had just regained my self-belief.

Time, speed, distance

(a response to Michael Rosen)

There – in the low drone,
the high mosquito moan
of the trickling voices
– something catches me,

drags me from my windowed
daydream, pictureframed
in the skyblue, eyeblue
wasting day outside.

“Speed equals distance over time.”
Overtime. Distance. Speed equals.
Springs ease, levers click,
oiled gears begin to move.

Take time. Time takes ages,
giving each a different pace:
when young it dragged its feet;
now old, it sprints to end the race.

Then distance, that deceiver,
makes a mile seem very easy;
the last five steps before the bus
moves off become another mile.

And speed’s subjective,
feelings wrapped in risk:
sedate at fifty in a car;
at thirty, thrilling on a horse.

But all three came together
on the jetty where we jumped:
the inches to the edge, an age;
the speeding feet we fell, a moment.

Raindrops scatter on the glass,
spattered ink-blots mark the page:
they spread across the emptiness
as dreams escape the cage.