Despite the often-repeated advice to just “be yourself,” I know from experience that it’s not always fun to be different. We humans are a tribal bunch, and being “the only” or “the first” anything can be a lonely and isolating experience, even for an adult. For a kid, it can be excruciating.

When I was growing up in southern Orange County, CA many eons ago, soccer was still widely unknown. The game that dominates the rest of the world was an enigma in The OC at that time – often confused with rugby, lacrosse, and even occasionally jai alai. Unless one’s parents hailed from other countries or were graduates of East Coast prep schools, the only kind of “football” kids talked about was the American kind.

I learned the rudiments of the game at age fourteen in the street in front of my older sister’s boyfriend’s house. He and his four brothers had recently arrived from , speaking very little English. The only bilingual activity available to me was kicking a soccer ball around with “the boys.”   

I soon picked up the basics (along with some colorful Spanish slang, but that’s another story). The brand-new high school I attended was in the process of putting together its first boys’ soccer team, and the pickings at the first tryout were slim: a handful of exchange students from Latin America and Europe, some off-season cross-country runners, and me. And I was only there because my sister’s boyfriend made me. 

Despite a lifelong history as a tomboy – leading a small gang of neighborhood boys in cap gun fights and skateboard stunt competitions – I had abruptly reached the age where being the only girl in a sea of masculinity was, well, mortifying. I ended up making the team (believe me, it wasn’t hard), and thanks to Title IX (which mandates that female athletes be allowed to compete with males if they don’t have an equivalent offering), I became the first girl to boys’ soccer in that part of Southern California. 

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