Written by Linnea Cooley.
I don’t have many fond memories of my middle-school gym class. I remember getting hit in the stomach with a soccer ball and I remember doing laps around the field in the pouring rain. Middle school as a whole was a hellish and hormonal experience. I would likely have repressed this period of my life completely if it hadn’t been for my gym teacher, Coach Marino.
My middle school employed four gym teachers, three men, and a young woman named Coach Marino. In sixth grade, I was placed in her class, and my fascination with her began immediately.
“It’s Coach Marino. Not Ms. Marino, not Miss, and not ‘Hey lady’” she told us on the first day of class. Coach Marino had dark hair that was cut short like a man’s. She wore navy blue tracksuits, and on sunny days she donned a pair of aviator sunglasses. She was the coolest person I had ever met.
Coach Marino was the only adult who treated me like a person.
It was widely agreed among the other students that Coach Marino was the best gym teacher. The other gym teachers were ill-mannered and prone to angry outbursts. If a student did something they didn’t like, they would holler across the field until they grew red in the face.
“No walking! Kick the ball!” they would scream, as spit flew out of their mouths. It wasn’t unusual for kids to cry. Coach Marino never yelled. Instead, she would walk over to us and look us in the eye. “Kids, let’s refocus” she would say. “Focus on kicking the ball into the goal.”
“Okay Coach Marino,” we’d reply, and go back to mucking about in the muddy field.
Coach Marino’s balanced attitude was a welcome break from the harassment I received from other adults in my life. As a middle school student, my time was split between nagging teachers, nagging guidance counselors, and my nagging mother. In the classroom, there was always something wrong with the way I wrote my notes, and at home, there was always something wrong with the way I tucked my shirt, brushed my hair, or set the table. I was sick of adults ordering me around and critiquing my every move. Coach Marino was the only adult who treated me like a person.
Besides her laid-back demeanor, there was another difference between Coach Marino and my other female teachers that I did not have the words to articulate. The other kids learned the vocabulary before I did.
Our sex-ed curriculum contained no mention of homosexuality, so everything I knew about the subject had come to me in bits and pieces through the middle-school gossip line.
“My mom says Coach Marino is a lesbian,” a girl named Anne told us in the locker room. She pronounced the word forcefully as if it tasted bad in her mouth. The other kids nodded along in agreement, “She looks like a lesbian.” I was bewildered by this statement. What did a lesbian look like? I knew what a lesbian was in theory, but I was fuzzy on the details. Our sex-ed curriculum contained no mention of homosexuality, so everything I knew about the subject had come to me in bits and pieces through the middle-school gossip line. It would be years before I reckoned with my own queerness, but I knew this was a significant piece of information. If Coach Marino was a lesbian, then being a lesbian couldn’t be that bad. After all, she was my hero.
Outside of gym class, I saw Coach Marino every day after school for softball practice. I’d been playing softball since first grade, and it was one of the few extracurriculars I hadn’t yet quit. I was not a good softball player, and my lack of skill meant that I was placed permanently in the outfield where the ball rarely came my way.
In seventh grade, my softball team had a strong year, and we made it to an elimination round for the local tournament. We took a bus to the elimination game, fidgeting in our seats and wondering out loud if the other team was any good. Coach Marino gave us a pep talk before we got off the bus, reminding us to swing fast and to always keep our eyes on the ball.
As I neared the bench, Coach Marino motioned towards me. My eyes preemptively filled with tears as I imagined what she was going to say to me.
Unfortunately for us, the opposing team was good. Quite good. We had some lucky innings at the beginning of the game but struggled to maintain a lead. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the other team scored three runs, tying the score. I was in the outfield as usual, digging my cleats into the grass. Suddenly, I heard the crack of the bat and saw the large yellow softball fly into the air. I watched it sail over the head of the pitcher and the outstretched glove of the shortstop. As the ball barreled towards me, I reached up my glove, but the ball whizzed to my right and landed in the grass behind me. I had lost us the game. The opposing team erupted in screams of joy and ran to hug the batter who had scored the winning run. As our team jogged in from the field, my shoulders tensed. Coach Marino was standing by the bench, watching me approach from the outfield. I was certain I awaited a tongue-lashing in front of everyone.
As I neared the bench, Coach Marino motioned towards me. My eyes preemptively filled with tears as I imagined what she was going to say to me. I had failed our team, ruining the game for everybody. Coach Marino registered my wide eyes and shaking shoulders. Then, she patted me on the back and said words I’ll never forget. “Good game. Now everyone get on the bus.”
About The Author
Linnea Cooley is a non-binary writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. More of their work can be found on their website, linneacooley.weebly.com
Follow on Twitter: @linnea_cooley