Monday was the 8-11 girls' soccer ("you know, it's really called football") tryouts for the A and B teams.
Her father had watched the practices. She was good, but was she A team good? It depended on the day. Precise and aggressive one day, distracted and chatty the next day. Some days she owned the ball. Other days she had to pee. And she was picking her fingers a lot.
He had given her some helpful advice: dribble up the right sideline because those right footed girls will have a harder time getting the ball away from you. Also when you kick on goal kick knee height, force the goalie to have to bend down.
He also told her that Hannah Montana ("Dad, that's not her name") was the evidently the dominant player on the other team, and when it looked like Hannah was going to go after the ball her teammates would hang back and out of her way, but that meant the ball was unguarded. That was a good time to go after it.
It was the kind of advice he wished someone had given him back when it was his turn.
Ok. There were four obvious A teamers, leaving seven spots. Call it 6. If Jane and Sue made A team, she'd definitely make it. Kathy and Claire were older and if they got picked because of seniority then there'd be only two or three open spots left. Tight.
The Dad said this: whatever team you make, you have to earn it everyday. You make A but don't keep up, they'll send you down to B. Make B but work hard, and they'll move you to A. (That's life, he thought. That's what this is all about anyway.)
Besides, they're not going to let someone too good be on B for very long because they'd dominate the game. The coaches want everyone to get a chance to play. (Sophistry in the service of the ego. That's life, too, but it's not a lesson he wanted her to have to learn.)
Tuesday: no call. But Kathy heard: A team. Wednesday came: no call. Claire got A team. Wednesday night: Hannah Montana found out she was B. That made no sense. Other mothers checked in, they heard A team was filled. "I guess she made B," they apologized in advance.
Then there was the news: there were too many girls. Or plenty of girls. So the coaches created a C team. Uh oh.
She went into school: everyone else had heard. "What'd you get?" Claire asked.
"I don't know."
"Oh. My. God. That means you got C team!"
She picked her fingers a lot that day. If she made at least B, she promised herself she wouldn't buy a soft pretzel with the milk money and wouldn't throw out more than five of her grape unless... unless she finished all her carrots. And she would stop trying to control everything.
When she got home her Dad was already coping with the news. "I'm so sorry. They said you made the C team."
She started not to cry. "That's okay," she said. It wasn't.
This is another one of those times you make it as a parent or you move out because your presence is a biotoxin to everyone in the family. So: as terrible as it was, he could use it to make her into a better person. First the obvious lesson: failure happens, nothing is guaranteed. Life is competition. Parents and the government can't bail you out of everything.
Ok-- facing her classmates and having to tell them that she was C while still maintaining her dignity-- without hiding behind "we're all special in our own way"--- there was value in that. "What should I tell everybody at school?" she asked. "(Can I lie?)" No. "Just tell them: 'I made C team. I don't know how it happened, I feel pretty awful about it, but I'm going to make the most of it.' Whenever you talk, be straight."
And of course she could get better. Let's face it, she hadn't worked that hard. It's not like she drilled every day in her yard. Getting on A with only Saturday practice could easily make you think you're better than you are, more deserving than you are, and when the inevitable failure comes from boys or grades or lotteries it crushes you right through your paper foundation. Next thing you know you're 15 and one of your friends has an older brother who knows where to get some pot and how to have sex without getting pregnant.
Starting from C and and getting to A is the biggest accomplishment, it's what makes you a man. Or woman in a man's world.
"You have lots of potential. Nothing is set in stone. You're still young. Practice, practice, practice. You can be anything you want." He had plenty of advice, quite practical. Keep it coming. In this way he might avoid the thought: this is another thing at which she will not be exceptional. The thought came anyway.
He had never wanted to be a soccer star, he hadn't even played very much, but at 50 it was inevitable that he would never become a soccer star. Now his daughter wasn't going to be a soccer star either which meant that he had failed at soccer twice. Another closed door just got boarded up.
One by one his daughter failed or lost interest in the things he had never done. There was no time left for him to be exceptional at anything though his daughter represented a wide open future with millions of open doors. But she spent the first years of her life closing them. "How would vous like to go to un Francais immersion camp?" he had once asked. "French?" she had replied, reaching for a door, "I don't know..." Slam.
The only thing left for him was to become father of. "My daughter is a soccer star, " he wouldn't have to say, everyone would just know it about them. And he'd sit at the practices and give her advice and then afterwards a quick snack and off to violin, because she had the potential to get to Julliard if she practiced, and, crazy passing daydream, one day People would do a story about him.
But it wasn't going like he had imagined it would. Somewhere in his brain he had thought that maybe his daughter's success would keep him from getting old. He had never been able to get off C Team, and the last thing left that he might be excel at, fatherhood, he was proving to be as mediocre as in everything else.
When you are a narcissist, children, even the good ones, are a narcissistic injury. That story almost never has a happy ending, but it does end.
There is no redemption for him because the point isn't his redemption, it's hers, and you either get that or you don't. Most people don't, which is why there's a C team at all.
When she said, "that's okay," of course it wasn't, and something in his brain shorted and he was able to resist all of his best impulses and instead just hugged her and said, "there's not much I can say to make this better, but I love you all the time, all the time. So there's this." And he opened a bag and pulled out the next Harry Potter movie which she had been begging for every day, ("please please PLEASE!") but at those times he had pretended to be the Dad that People would one day profile, "you have to finish the book first because I want you to learn that the books are always better." Shut it, old man.
Sometimes when a little girl is sad you just... fix it. And this time it made her smile so much and for so many reasons and after dinner they sat down together and watched it. That was all. It was about a boy who didn't have a mom or a dad, and he had to make it all by himself, and he did.
Soccer wasn't going anywhere. But she was.