By Rebecca Koerselman
When was the last time that you deliberately joined a group of people that you knew were different from you?
While a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University (Go Spartans!), I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried something new. I joined a local roller derby team.
I managed to shock most of my friends and family (which was fun, I admit), and spent a great deal of time explaining what roller derby was (a real sport, with blockers and jammers where you score points by passing people on an oval track while wearing roller skates, helmets, and other safety gear)—and wasn’t (not cage fighting, like the televised exhibitions in the 1970s).
I realized how many stereotypes existed about roller derby and the women who played derby. I enjoyed the reactions of people when I told them I played roller derby… “You?” was the typical shocked response. Apparently I didn’t look like someone who played roller derby…?
Not surprisingly, I found the women on the team to be a wonderful mix of people: married, single, moms with younger kids, moms with older kids, divorcees, Christians, non-Christians, straight, gay, mature, immature, blue collar, white collar, and a wide range of ages from 18 to 40+. As someone who grew up in a Christian home, attended Christian school and a Christian college, and was always active in church, I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know a different mix of people.
The roller derby team I joined was working toward their non-profit status, and did a great deal of volunteering with local groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the women’s shelter, Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Society, and other great (and not explicitly Christian) organizations. I realized that I had never done volunteer work outside of a church or Christian-based organization. There are many people who volunteer and do good things without the same faith-based motivation as most Christians. I liked being part of such a diverse group. I did not realize how homogeneous my life had become.
While I was in pretty good physical shape, I had not roller skated since the days of those awkward junior high roller skating parties. Joining the team meant four to six hours of practice each week—skating, jumping, footwork, hitting drills, strategy, more hitting drills, and learning the rules. For weeks (or months, if I’m honest), I was nervous before each practice. I knew that I would embarrass myself (and find bruises in interesting places), and I did not like the fact that I wasn’t ‘good’ at it. But I kept working at it and began to improve. I worked hard, built relationships with the other women on the team, and figured out what I was good at—encouraging my teammates, joking around, calming some of my teammates, playing Pivot, blocking the inside lane, and endurance. I was not good at everything, but I also realized I was okay with that. And it was fun! Trying something new is challenging, but it is also empowering.
As we mature, too often we focus only on the areas in which we excel. As adolescents, we think (or hope) we will be good at many things, and live through the cringe-worthy moments of recognizing our actual skills and abilities. When we get older, we naturally emphasize the gifts and abilities we do have, and avoid circumstances where we will end up looking foolish, inept, or silly. For me, this means avoiding complex math, sports with hand-eye-coordination, and dealing with large insects in my house, to name a few. I am quite adept at avoiding committees, people, and situations where I know I will be uncomfortable or incompetent. Joining the roller derby team challenged me in many different ways. I knew only one other person on the team, and I would be judged and valued by my physical abilities when I could barely roller skate. But I learned that taking risks is difficult and energizing. I loved getting to know a group of non-Christians as friends and teammates, and they pushed me to understand more about people outside of my traditional social circle. Our time together spurred many interesting conversations about lots of things in life, including faith. In addition, now I have much better balance, I’m not afraid of a little body contact, and I’m really good at navigating a crowded space, especially if I don’t need to be polite.
Best of all, I have an alternate ego as Helleanor Bruisevelt.
And I can hip check anyone who gets on my nerves.
For more info about the game of roller derby, its rules and regulations, see WFTA (Women’s Flat-Track Association): http://wftda.com/rules or watch this for the basics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2W2b1WBmm4
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.