The front hallway of my high school was a bevy of information, a collage of people and how they spend their days. Today I suppose it would look like a facebook homepage. There was Mrs. Carr in reception always wearing a cable knit cardigan and streaked hair set in the same style for 38 years. She controlled the in and out slips, the forgotten lunches dropped off and notes for early dismissal. There was the faculty lounge housing teacher mailboxes and old sofas where teachers would grab moments in between classes to plan or grade or converse or stare out the window. Next: the test calendar where teachers had to write what class was being tested on what day so no grade would have more than 2 tests and 2 papers on any given day. Then: At the change of seasons, a sheet of paper taped to the wall announcing who made the cut for each athletic team. There was always a crowd of girls, scanning the list, hoping to find her name and trying to remember who else was on it; inevitably more than one would quietly turn away rushing to exit the building before allowing the tears of rejection to sneak out. Next: the chalkboard which had some hierarchy for who could post what and where but I don’t remember the pecking order. It mostly contained that day’s special events –a crepe sale fundraiser for French club, Sextette a cappella practice during lunch, where the yearbook layout meeting would be. Occasionally a graffiti posting of some girl hearting some boy would sneak up in the bottom right hand corner. In spring it was covered with congratulatory postings of college acceptances. Finally: the mail slots, listed alphabetically by grade. Here is where we received official school communication: graded tests and papers, folded lengthwise with the grade in the bottom right corner of the last page so no one else could see what you got; notes from teachers “to come see me” or letters from colleges. It is here where my dream of Brown University first began. The lacrosse coaches had contacted a handful of us our junior year with a desire for us to come to campus and potentially play.
I was recruited. Eventually more letters from other colleges came and phone calls and visits after that. But this was big news. An ivy league, division I school had noticed and wanted me. It was exhilarating and empowering. Just when my class of 42 was seeming too cramped, when my hometown had become too predictable, and my parents (who had done everything to foster and uplift me and prepare me to soar) seemed to be doing nothing but holding me back, I received a hand written letter from a woman who said, you have potential and I can do something with it. The process continued on a summer day in Providence. My mother and I met Wendy Anderson and Carolan Norris, saw the astro-turf field three stories up on the roof of the athletic complex, and started to believe in a dream that I could be an impact player for the Brown bears. The college tour of New England was essentially over and I wanted to go nowhere else. I was accepted that winter and my dream became a reality.
The experience was not all rosy. What big life moment is? I loved Brown University. I loved lacrosse and my team and playing college sports. But I didn’t love Wendy and she didn’t love me. I am not sure either of us were very lovable at the time. I was naïve and raw with a bravado that fueled me to be tougher than most. She was tough and undisciplined in how she motivated her players. Once during a team meeting my freshman year, Wendy announced she had never seen a bigger butt than mine –and this was coming from a field hockey coach. She played mind games and favorites and stole self-confidence from players whose skills and desire crumbled because of it. Luckily for me, negative feedback worked. I can’t say I reached my potential as a player at Brown but I can accept my role was just as big as Wendy’s. And regardless of our shortcomings, who I am today as a person is better because of Wendy.
During my sophomore year, I was called into Wendy’s office. It was after practice and we were showering in the locker room when the assistant coach popped her head in to tell me to get upstairs in the office. Crap! I quickly began to catalog my memory of any recent actions that would land me in trouble. Had I mouthed off in practice? Been late for the game bus? Skipped class? All were probably true but I could not pinpoint anything out of the ordinary that would require special punishment. I was told to sit on the couch and the door was partially closed. My stomach began to twirl like it does during the national anthem before a game. Wendy asked me how I was doing. This was not good –the warm up before the hatchet; what had I done? I told her fine, trying to hide the fear causing my voice to shake. She asked me if I thought Brown did a fair job with women’s sports. It was 1991. Yes I said, relieved I wasn’t in trouble but still scared this was a set-up. She asked why I thought that and I said well because I get to play lacrosse and there are lots of women’s teams at Brown. Wendy explained our budget from the athletic department did not cover the cost of home game officials and if she did not fundraise, we would not have a program. I was confused. We got sticks and a pair of gray shorts and a t-shirt that was all washed for free on a giant safety pin? I began to think about my boyfriend on the men’s team and all that he got. I had stolen more gear from him than I ever was given as a female player. And he still had ample supplies. While he got turf shoes and cleats, my girlfriend and I would drive to the mall each season with our parents’ credit cards and buy our own, both from the boy’s department. The men had sweats and jackets and shoes and uniforms and extra coaches and more players and, well, EVERYTHING. I saw Wendy’s point and was surprised. Brown did a better job than most schools of complying with the 1971 law passed by President Nixon requiring gender equity for all opportunity. While I was busy being a college student-athlete, Wendy was quietly fighting a battle she had started as a female athlete in the 1970s. She was crusading for the right to play. A year after that office meeting, a gymnast from Brown filed the first ever Title IX violation. After years of litigation, Amy Cohen won, and had her program reinstated.
The news spread like a hacking cough on a small airplane. One post on facebook, multiple forwards, comments. Former teammates, players, coaches, and friends huddled together to remember. The search for photos, old war stories, a blog written to remember the past. Friends of mine who have never seen a lacrosse field posted condolences to the news Wendy Anderson had passed away. She had struggled in life, most of it fighting for change. Yesterday morning she lost her ten-year battle with brain cancer at the home of her parents on the Cape. And the passing is filled with irony and mixed emotions.
First and foremost, we are sad for her family and friends, for the end of a life that came way too soon. We are also thankful she is no longer in pain of any kind, finding the peace and wholeness she searched for down here. Death always takes one’s breath away –no matter how long the struggle with illness or age. It can be years in the making or days. Despite knowing we all end up the same way, we are caught off guard when it comes. The finality feels so wrong. Maybe because it is. Wendy was a trailblazer for women’s sports. She influenced thousands of female athletes who are changing the way women and sports and the world are viewed today. And for that, I am very, very grateful.