Books, On the Run

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

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It’s Friday night in Texas and I’m going to a football game for the second time in my life. I’m determined to hate it. I might be from sports-mad Australia, but I’m staunchly anti-football. It’s a loathing born of clumsiness and compulsory school sports, and cemented in anger. Where I grew up on the far outer edges of Melbourne, football was yet another way for boys to shine and girls to be spectators. I’m pretty sure an American high school game will be a magnified version of everything I hate about Aussie rules. With cheerleaders.

I hit my first problem at the grandstand, two sets of aluminium bleachers framing a bright Astroturf field. The cheerleaders are there, along with the Gatorade-sponsored drink stand, the electronic score boards and bright lights, but this isn’t the aggressively slick event I’ve grown to expect from a lifetime watching American TV.

It’s North Dallas versus Jefferson High and there are less than a hundred people supporting the home team, around forty supporting the visitors. They’re huddled in family groups, clutching handmade signs and swathed in baggy coats and blankets. Spanish drifts on the still night air. Jock and I are the only white faces here and we’re getting a lot of sideways glances. (Later, I look up the school’s ethnic diversity: 73% Hispanic, 20% African American, 2% white.)

We sit next to a couple and their son. Seven year-old Luis translates his mother’s excited Spanish to tell us that his sister plays trumpet in the marching band and his big brother, Jonathan, plays covert position on the football team. Or maybe it’s cover position. It’s my first terminology fail but I’m confident there’ll be more. Even Jock, the sports-fan, looks blank. Luis keeps showing us the glittery sign he’s made to cheer on his big brother and my barriers start to crumble.

Then the parade begins.

It’s the beginning of the school year and they’re holding a ceremony for the final year students. One by one, the Seniors parade down the field. Not just the jocks, but also the cheerleaders and band members. The loudspeaker announces each student’s hopes for the future. There are wannabe sports stars and sports agents, kinesiologists, lawyers and scientists. Most of them thank their mothers for ‘pushing and supporting’ them.

By chance, we’re sitting in front of the photographer and get a clear view of each teenager as they pose with their mothers, fathers and siblings. The families are beaming, but there’s something fragile about their expressions, as though they’re willing these almost-adults to grow up safely. It’s a look I recognise from when my own community lost a young teenager a few years ago. She should have been the same age as these bright young things. And it dawns on me for the first time that some of these people might have entered the country illegally. They’ll be worried about traffic stops and gun-ready police and know families who have been deported and split up and destroyed. The match hasn’t even begun and I’m tearing up.

The game itself is impenetrable. There are sudden flurries of action interspersed with long periods of inaction. Uniformed men throw trailing yellow cloths onto the field, accompanied by the loudspeaker announcement ‘Flag on the field!’. Jock fails to live up to his name and can’t interpret a single play.

Luckily, the game seems to be only a small part of the event. Two marching bands battle it out with opposing songs, sometimes simultaneously. Sousa gets a good workout, along with the Jurassic Park theme and Michael Jackson. The playlist is exactly what I expected, but the cheerleaders aren’t. TV has let me down again. There’s no ‘Mean Girl’ sophistication in the teams, just sweet kids with painstakingly curled ponytails, laddered stockings and basic routines. A young girl comes running up to watch every time they go through their chants. ‘OK people it’s time to get rowdy. R. O. W. D. Y!’

I take advantage of half-time to find the kiosk (Tacos, chicken wings, and two official Healthy Choices: Powerade and fruit.) The jostling teenagers give me a more obvious version of the side-eye I’ve been getting on the bleachers. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, made more so by the realisation that people aren’t just curious about my presence, but worried. Maybe I’m an ICE agent or a cop. Maybe I’m an entitled racist who’ll call law enforcement for some imagined crime.

As I head back to the bleachers I think about the only other football game I’ve been to, a local match in my husband’s old hometown. North Dallas and Fitzroy Crossing couldn’t be more different; the startling green Astroturf of modern Texas and the fine red dust and hard heat of an isolated Outback town. There were no cheerleaders or marching bands in Fitzroy Crossing, no sousaphones or grandstands, not even that many football boots. But there was the same lack of white faces, the same sense of community, pride and tenuous hope.

Just before the game begins again I summon the courage to ask a spectator to explain the yellow cloths. Once he tunes into my accent he laughs. ‘That’s a penalty,’ he says. ‘It means someone’s gone done something wrong.’

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