The girls from the high school track team are sitting at their own round tables, separated from their parents. I am sitting at a table with some of their parents. The party favors that I had tied up with navy blue and gold ribbons help to add some color, but other than them, the white linen-tables are sparse. I ought to help more with the track and field committee next year. I could bring in flowers and easily arrange them in mason jars or wine tumblers.
As I cut into the lemon chicken and red potatoes, the woman across the expansive white tablecloth from me asks if my daughter had a good year in track.
“It’s my niece,” I say to her. “And I think so. She’s not good at all, but she had fun.”
The woman chuckles at my candor and states that what matters is that the girls enjoyed themselves. I ask her about her child. She beams and rattles off numbers. I’m not literate in the world of track and field, so the times and distances she repeats don’t mean anything to me, but I sense that they must be impressive. After all, she is beaming as she speaks about her daughter. While I am pleased for her, I am confident that most of the parents in this banquet hall — even the ones whose daughters did not end the season with personal records — are equally proud of their children. But I was not always of this mindset.
Twenty years ago I taught seventh and eighth graders at a parochial school. Often adults grimace about having to deal with young teenagers; however, I enjoyed my students. They were old enough that I could converse with, but young enough that most of them weren’t towering over me. I remember Oliver with his head of corn silk hair. He was of a smaller stature, and came to school each morning with clean blue shorts and a pristine white Oxford shirt. His tennis shoes were scuffed up but neatly tied. He was a timid boy who trembled when he spoke to me about his grade on the group project. I worked hard, I deserve a high grade, too, he said. Yes, yes, you do, sweet boy, you do, I thought. And I changed his grade, not because his work deserved it, but because his courage did. I remember Sarah and Aleah. They were average achievers when it came to academics, but they were pleasant girls who spoke respectfully with teachers and friends and who crushed on a new boy each week. I gave them my childhood Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, Keith and Emma, when I left the school. I also remember Scott. Scott was an avid reader who preferred to sit against the basketball pole reading a sci-fi than to try a shot at the basket. He was one of six kids at home, and he was entangled in the climax of puberty and was clearly marked for it by zits. Large, bulbous, red zits. They attacked his face as though they were angry with him. And I remember Niel (yes, i before e). He was an Italian kid whose parents owned a pizzeria. Niel regularly arrived at school with marinara sauce smeared on his shirt and his pants belt-less, which drove the nuns crazy. He was a pain in my side because he refused to write legibly. Niel’s hair was disheveled, and not by design. His homework papers were wrinkled, and his attitude was, as well.
As a teacher I was fair in terms of assignments and grades, but I did prefer to be around some kids over others. I liked the tidy ones who delivered funny jokes and oozed spunk. Similar to their parents, I admired who they were as young people. Green in the world of parenting, though, I did not know any better and would wonder about parents like those of Niel and Scott. Their boys were lacking in one way or another. How did they feel about their sons when they saw other people’s sons who shined on the football field or whose appearance alone garnered them more party invitations? Were Niel and Scott enough for them? Did they wish for more?
After our plates of chicken and vegetables are removed from our table, the young head coach approaches the podium. He will acknowledge each girl for her accomplishments in this year’s track season. Present tonight are about 55 of them. He proceeds to describe the first girl as a team player who made it to the list of all-time record at the high school. He reads off her running times and goes on about her some more before he starts to speak about the second girl, who made it to WPIAL and was so close to making it to States. Our niece is up next and receives a short, but honest assessment. I can always count on her to try her best. The mother sitting next to me glances over her shoulder. Her genuine smile says that I must be proud. I am. Our niece is competitive and often excels in what she does, but running is not her strong suit. However, she doesn’t let that challenge deter her from giving it her all.
The girls patiently stand in line, waiting for their turn to be recognized. They are quiet except for when they clap for their teammates. As instructed, they are all adorned in dresses, some of which are a bit too short for my taste. One cotton frock — white with blue embroidered flowers — catches my eye. Most of the girls are wearing their hair down, some straight and some in curls; and some are sporting pumps, and even heels. Others, like my niece, chose their Converse. As the coach continues with the accolades, anyone could tell that some girls outperformed others. Later, tonight, fewer than a handful of them will receive special awards. I sneak glances of the parents in the banquet hall. Each one is watching the coach. I crawl into the parents’ heads, where I see through their eyes more clearly. It’s not the coach they are watching. It’s their daughters. It’s the person who they had witnessed entering the world, it’s the being who they nursed, the little girl who is tied to them. I hear their silent voices: there she is, there is my daughter, she is my daughter, look at my daughter, she is mine.
I miss my Daffy and Kiri. I want my daughter to be here, not so that her coach or teacher could recognize her, but so that I could watch her, too. I don’t wish for my children to be overachievers. I don’t desire for them to make any strides in the science field or to write a national bestseller. I don’t want the world to know their name. I only want them to be here. I breathe, and I imagine Daffy sitting on my lap and Kiri leaning against my thigh. I imagine sniffing the crook of her neck — inhaling the sweetness of fruit and sweat. I imagine Kiri patting my thigh, asking for some attention, too. I could feel the weight of Daffy’s bum and Kiri’s elbow pressing into me, and I could see them — their black hair, their stubby fingers, my boy’s face turning up at me. I drink him in as I squeeze his sister into my breasts. They are enough for me. They are. They are enough for me, and right now, this evening, I wish for them to be here so that other parents in this hall could see for themselves that my children are enough for me.