By Claire Soller, age 13, Ohio
What if no one likes me? What if I’m lonely? What if people think I’m weird? What if I get teased, made fun of, or bullied? Those were the thoughts running through my head on the way up to the tennis tournament.
My dad, breaking the stony silence, asked me, “How are you feeling?”
I answered, and all my fears came tumbling out.
He responded by saying, “Honey, you’ll be fine. You’re an amazing girl, and you will succeed at whatever you put your mind to.” After that comment, the car turned silent once more.
Tryouts had been in March, and we found out in July if we made the cut. I had tried out to be a ball-kid up at the Western and Southern Open, the tennis tournament that is held in Cincinnati each summer. When I got the letter of acceptance, I was jubilant! Then, when I realized I knew no one who would be doing it with me, my blood ran cold, and my hands became clammy.
My mom, who noticed that I suddenly went stonily silent, asked me, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you excited?”
I responded by saying, “Yes, but I will know no one up there and will have to walk into a totally new place, with totally different people in it, and make friends.” She reassured me by telling me that this would be a great experience and that I would make so many new friends. I reluctantly said yes and then went upstairs to my room to think.
On the first day of the tournament, when I walked into the ball-kid lounge, I panicked. There was a room with at least 300 kids aged from 12 to 17. It was overwhelming how many kids and young adults were in the room. Their faces swam in front of my eyes and then ended up being blurred together as my head tried to take it all in. My dad gave me a little nudge from behind and told me to go sign in. I went over to a lady in a fire-engine-red shirt and told her my name. Then she asked if she could take my bag, and I shook my head no. She told me to have a fun time, that this was going to be an amazing experience, and that I would count down the days until next year’s tournament. I gave her a skeptical look, quirked my eyebrow, and answered her with a doubtful nod.
Now I was faced with a problematic challenge of deciding where to sit in the sea of the red and black shirts of the ball-kid uniform.
I walked up to a table of girls with one lone chair open and asked, “Can I sit here?”
A girl with blonde, shiny hair tucked into a cap responded with a yes! So I sat down, introduced myself to the group, and nervously started conversing with them. It turned out that they were very friendly!
During this whole exchange, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My hands were clammy, my brow was slicked with sweat, my knees were trembling with worry, and a river was going down my back. I thought to myself, I am going to need to change my shirt even without the rain. The thought made a smile pop onto my face, and then the rest of the conversation became easy.
When we got our court assignments, I realized I was going to be on Grandstand and was perplexed on how a first-year, like me, could get onto such a high court! I turned to my new friends and asked them what court they were on, and two girls, Elizabeth and Lauren, were on my court! We were so excited; we all held hands while jumping in the air squealing, doing the cliché thing that you would normally see in movies. Someone around us started laughing, and that shook us out of our excitement quickly. I turned around and fell straight into the gaze of an unexplainably cute boy with dazing, chocolate eyes that seemed to automatically draw me in.
My breath caught on my throat, and my face turned bright red. He asked me my name in a smooth and beautiful voice. I responded with a hint of shakiness and then immediately blushed. Then, in a little stronger of a voice, I asked his in return and managed to play my nervousness into being a tad bit flirty. He reacted by leaning in a little closer, so I could smell his musky but light, sweet-smelling cologne. His name was Logan. Oh, boy, my brain thought against my will, he’s a cutie. I died a little inside when that thought went through my head.
Logan asked me what court I was on. I told him my court, and then he said, “Oh, cool! I’m on that same court!”
In my mind I was saying, Oh, great, now I can be distracted on the court and most likely do an awful job. He noticed my sudden change in demeanor and asked me what was wrong. I responded in an overly chipper voice, “Nothing!”
He answered back, “I don’t believe that.” Then I finally broke my protective walls down and poured the whole thing onto the poor guy.
The whole exchange happened in a matter of minutes but felt like hours. His unwavering gaze and sympathetic eyes had me feeling like hiding and wanting to cry all at the same time. As I opened myself up to a perfect stranger, my life changed in a way I never could’ve thought. He led me to a quiet corner in the lounge, and then we got down to business. He gently asked me what was bugging me in a quiet and caring voice that seemed to caress my body, relaxing me. We talked through the whole problem and lost ourselves in the conversation, forgetting the bustling busyness around us. He showered compliments on me about all my good qualities and made me feel like the most amazing girl alive—in a way, like a princess. He made my heart swell with the way that he gave me the compliments: not too overbearing but in a perfectly sweet way.
He then looked at me and said simply, “How could anyone not like you?”
I just turned my head away and pretended to be interested in something on the other side of the room.
He kept going. “I saw you at tryouts.”
At that sentence I slowly turned my head back around to face him.
He continued while gaining speed. “I saw you there, and you looked amazing at ball-person-ing. I knew right there that you would make it, and I instantly wanted to be your friend.”
When he spoke that, my heart sped up, and I smiled so big that my cheeks nearly burst.
He looked at me, tilted his lips into a smile, and responded to my goofy smile with a simple, “And now that has happened.”
This had been a great start to one of the best days ever. After a full day of work, my parents picked me up at around 11:30 that night, and I went home to get some rest before another fun-filled, challenging day full of tennis.
The next morning was dark and dreary. While I was still nervous about meeting new people, my initial anxiety was becoming weaker and weaker, and I became more excited at the fact of meeting new people. But still, I wasn’t 100 percent sure. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I slapped my hand around the nightstand to find the annoyingly loud wails of the alarm clock. My hand finally found the off button and filled the room with peace and quiet. I got to sleep another 10 minutes until my mom came in. I heard her open the door, and then she threw my poor, unsuspecting cat onto my body, which was buried under layers upon layers of blankets making my bed and me warm as a toaster.
She then chirped, “Get up, sleepy-head! It’s another wonderful day!” I groaned and rolled over to face the nice, quiet wall. Then her tone got deadly serious, and I knew she meant business. I clambered out of bed and went to go put on my black and red ball-kid uniform. When I went downstairs, she had laid out a meal fit for a king; there were sizzling bacon; yummy, yellow eggs; and deliciously crunchy toast, toasted to the perfect mix of brown and white crunch. She told me that if I hurried up and ate, my dad would stop at Starbucks. That stirred me out of my trance-like state. I shoveled down my amazing breakfast; got my socks, shoes, and bag; and then went out the door in record time.
This time, when I walked through the door into the already bustling ball-kid lounge, I wasn’t as nervous as the first day. I thought to myself, Maybe I will actually be able to show my new friends my true self. My inner scaredy-cat argued, You better wait a couple more days; you don’t want to scare them away with your overly energetic ways. As soon as I stepped foot into the lounge, I barely had time to check in, give my bag to the bag check, and get my court assignments before a voice came up behind me and startled me into silence. I immediately knew it was Logan, and a smile slipped onto my lips as I turned around to face him. He asked me what court I was, and I responded with the number.
He replied by saying, “Aw, darn, we’re not on the same court.”
I addressed him with, “Dang, I guess I will have to meet some more people.” A little smile appeared on my face. I was becoming not as nervous as I was before about meeting people.
He quipped back with, “Why would you need to meet new people when you have me and those girls you were sitting with yesterday?”
I slashed back with a fierce, “Well, maybe you guys aren’t enough.”
We looked at each other and just burst out into belly-aching, infectious laughter.
On my first shift on court four, I met two new people, Cooper and Sophie. They both were hilarious, self-assured people. Just being with them made me feel more confident and comfortable in my own skin. When I met them, I just started opening up to them and almost showing them my true self. The longer I was with them, the closer they were to seeing my true self. We laughed, talked, and just had pure fun, the three of us.
Once my shift on court four was over, I went back to the lounge, and Logan immediately came up to me and asked me how my shift was. I told him how much fun it was meeting new people and that I did a really great job on court. He looked at me, smiled, and congratulated me on my accomplishments in a cute, teasing voice. I asked him how his shift was in the same kind of voice, and he gave me the low-down on how the court monitor named Gary was awful, mean, and scary with a deep, tenor tone. I gave him a sympathetic look and told him that next time he would hopefully get a better court monitor.
We hung out a little at the lounge and then went to go get lunch. I got a delicious, melting hunk of ice cream from Graeters. He got colorful, sticky sushi from Fusion. We split them so that we had black raspberry chip ice cream and vegetable rolls for lunch. Once we were all settled at a table bathed in sun, he looked straight at me and asked if he was seeing the real me yet. I told him that he was seeing about as much anyone else had seen before I had started bottling parts of myself up. He made a promise to me: He said that by the end of the tournament, he was going to un-bottle the parts of myself that I was protecting with a stronghold of walls.
I responded by saying, “Good luck with that.”
He looked me in the eyes and told me that he was serious. Then, I couldn’t help myself and started sputtering into laughter that had tears rolling down my cheeks. His eyes became concerned; then, once he realized I was all right, he joined in until we were getting confused and questioning looks from others around us and we had to gain our barely-there composure back.
Later that night in the car, I told my mom that I was so glad she made me do this. She confessed by saying that she was going to make me do it even if I told her there was no way. I gave her a look of bewilderment; if looks could kill, she would be dead. She backtracked and said that she knew it would be a good experience for me.
I collected myself and gave her a confession of my own. “Mom, I’m really starting to not worry about what others think about me and my true self.”
She gushed, “That’s great, sweetie!”
I groaned, “Not now, Mom. I can’t handle so much enthusiasm at midnight.”
She looked at me, and we shared a secret smile filled with tons of love.
The next few days were a blur of tennis, Logan, all my other new friends, and me opening up to show my true, crazy self. On the last day of the tournament, I was eating lunch with Logan again, and we sat down at a table surrounded by the terrace of the garden with soft gutter music strumming in the background. He waited a couple of moments, then asked me if he had helped un-bottle the true me yet. I told him yes with a big, gushing smile that could drown a professional swimmer. He looked at me, smiled, and pulled me into a bone-crushing hug filled with all different types of feelings. Regret, sadness, happiness, envy, and most of all, love for life and people in his life. He uttered with content that he was overjoyed that I now didn’t care about what others thought. When he said how he was going to miss me during the school year, his voice took on an undercurrent of regret and forlornness. We sat in silence for a moment, both of us in our own thoughts as the reality hit us. We wouldn’t see each other until next year.
We then decided to enjoy the rest of the beautiful summer day, which was the perfect weather. The sun was out; there were little clouds drifting lazily through the sky. Birds were singing their happy tune to show their feelings of the day, and the people made a background chatter to make the whole scene perfect. We would have plenty of time to worry about saying our sad good-byes tonight. So we went about our business, ball-person-ing so many matches that by the end of the day, we could barely walk because we were so tired. Our legs were dead, and our feet were wailing to be let out of the confined space of the shoes. As my parents pulled in to pick me up, Logan and I said our last good-byes.
He looked me in the eyes. “Stay true to you.”
I looked at him, smiled, then pulled him in for a hug. I waved good-bye, overcome with a smattering of emotions, then hopped into the car next to my mom to take off for home. Logan stood waving as we pulled away from the tennis tournament. Our eyes met in the rearview mirror, and we shared one last smile filled with joy and sadness. And then he was gone.
The car was absolutely silent on the ride home, and then my mom broke the silence by saying, “Are you glad the tournament’s over?”
I sighed, “No, I wish it would last all year long.”
Then she said, “Well, all good things have to come to an end, but remember, next year, you can do it again.”
I didn’t respond, and then we drove home the rest of the way in a peaceful silence and with me thinking about how I had become more confident and how I had grown as a person. All because of tennis and new friends.