'Inside Track Learner' by student Amanda Johnson was published in Towards Publication in 2021.
Staring at the black wrist guards, ignorant of how to correctly strap them to my wrists, I inhale that particular scent of sweat that is produced by nerves rather than physical exertion. Now that my brain has acknowledged its presence, it will only intensify.
I want to be invisible, but I recall my sister asking me how long it had been since I last rollerskated and warning me that I would probably break a wrist.
In preparation to speak I try to swallow, but I have no saliva and the gravelly feeling makes me want to cough. I breathe hard, like an Olympic gymnast in competition, and finally force the words out. ‘Oh hey, can I just check … am I doing this right?’
I am not. My cheeks are hot, but my wrists are thankful.
I don the rest of my borrowed safety gear. The knee pads are too tight, but I’m exhausted by my previous interaction, so I tell myself they are fine. I put my skates on last and the moment I finish lacing up and rolling my feet across the floor from the safety of my seated position, something feels wrong. Surely these are a bit rollier than regular rollerskates. Panic washes over me as I realise I will never be able to peel my body from the low plastic bench without falling.
One of the roller derby coaches, Lauren, rolls by, and I aim for a cool and casual tone. ‘Hi, I’m feeling a bit nervous and think I might die getting off this bench. Are you able to give me a hand?’
‘Of course,’ Lauren says, smiling. She holds me, and then I am standing.
The roller derby Rainbow Rollers Learn to Sk8 classes are not filled with tattoo-clad bodies wearing strategically ripped-up schoolgirl uniforms, fishnet stockings and ‘fuck you’ printed on frilly underwear—as I had imagined. Everyone has opted for a modest black legging and singlet combo (disappointing) but the space is filled with warmth and comradery just as Drew Barrymore led me to believe it would be.
Even without an understanding of the rules or the point of derby, I knew I liked it. Yet neither the costumes nor the comradery were my reason for enrolling in the nine-week beginners (or fresh meat) program. My almost four-year-old son, Elliot, was.
One day as I hung adorably small t-shirts and undies on a clothes horse to dry, I noticed little brown marks coating each item of clothing. Assuming the marks were from a chocolatey serviette trapped inside a tiny pocket, I continued hanging the wet clothes … until the real source of the marks revealed itself.
There, in the washing basket trapped in a pair of twisted Teenage mutant ninja turtle undies, was a rogue poo I had accidently put through the washing machine.
My instinct was to be discouraged by the lack of toilet training progress we had made in the previous five months (also known as infinity). But after I threw away the undies and rewashed the poo-stained clothes, I decided I would try to better understand my kid’s fear and frustration. And until Bluey makes a ‘what to do when your kid is socially withdrawn, jealous of his twin sister’s quick skill acquisition and shits anywhere but the toilet’ episode, I decided to do what I ask my son Elliot to do every single day: learn something new.
For years I have thought of my son as living in a delightful dreamland of his own creation. He is cool and calm and doesn’t need me in the way his sister does. But a child’s dreamland can also be described as ‘developmentally delayed or a reluctance to engage in or learn new things.’ And once someone says it out loud, the ‘dreamland’ can quickly become feared rather than revered.
I never thought I’d be the kind of mum who wants their kid to ‘just be like all the other children.’ I mean, I’m a cool mum. I’m a social worker—we don’t want to change the person; we want to change the world. I understand communication and empathy and diverse feelings … in theory. In reality, I don’t want my son to be left behind because he refuses to learn. I don’t want him to continue thinking that his pants are the only place to defecate. And I don’t want him begging to stay home and watch telly because, ‘there’s other kids at the park’.
On the Sunday morning before my first class, I experience my first epiphany as I behave just like my kid. I want to stay in my pyjamas, watch telly, not speak to anyone new, and just be comfortable. Because honestly, watching telly and not speaking to people is freakin’ awesome. But instead, I force myself into my car and down Bell Street as my inner monologue tells me I will be the worst one there. I am ridiculous, too old and not cool enough. I doubt my ability to skate and am reluctant to even try. I picture my kid walking away from me as I try to talk to him about keeping his undies clean.
By the time I arrive I am awkward and lonely. There is no clear signage, so I inch towards a dark brick building. I am greeted by a woman in a wheelchair who looks at my wide and uncertain eyes and tells me I am in exactly the right place. Her name is Pi Sexual, and I momentarily fall in love with the kindness of her gesture. I am safe. This is what I want for my son.
After Pi Sexual welcomes me—and after Lauren helps me stand—Curley Burley, another coach, meets me out on track. They take my hand without hesitation. Curley tells me my body just needs a minute, but that I can do this. I want to look into Curley’s eyes and genuinely thank them, but my eyes refuse to shift their gaze from my feet. I thank the floor.
The track fills with about twenty-five learners and four coaches. At the beginning of class, Lauren gathers us together and says that Derby is like no other sport. ‘We are here for each other, and we pick each other up. When we fall, we congratulate each other. We “woo” and we high five because we are trying, and we are brave.’ I want to give myself over to the sentiment, but my fear consumes me.
I picture my mum strapping a couch cushion to my bum with a belt—the way she did when I skated as a child—and have a sudden urge to hold my little boy.
The Derby coaches are kind and nurturing and encouraging. Pi Sexual talks about Derby being grounded in trust. To be somewhere scary, to be brave, to be intimate, you need to trust those around you. By the end of my first class, I am gliding around the rink. We are asked to high five the person next to us. I high five a young woman and we both fall on our bums. Everyone cheers. And it feels fine.
Each Sunday class is still nerve-racking, but my nervous sweat becomes less potent. I stop arriving extra early, because I no longer need to gear up with no one else around (in case I do something foolish).
They still seem impossibly cool, but the Derby coaches have made a safe space for learning. They have made a safe space for us to make mistakes. At home, I read books to my son that affirm that mistakes are important, mistakes mean we are brave, and mistakes are how we learn.
By week five of the nine-week course, the other newbies aren’t quite as shy either. There are still no ripped-up schoolgirl uniforms or fishnets, but their black leggings/black singlet combo of week one has evolved into short shorts with band or feminist slogan t-shirts paired with rainbow or tube socks.
This slow entry into Derby attire (as we know it from the movies) reminds me of my son trying to join in dancing with his older cousins. He desperately wants to be a part of the fun, to join the cool kids, but every time he launches his body towards the dance floor, his fear sends him back to that safe place behind my legs.
I stick with black leggings throughout the course, but I find my rollerskating rhythm. I wobble at the beginning of class, then remember how to glide. Each week we are shown new skills, then we practice. More confident skaters go on the outside track and those who require extra support from coaches stay on the inside.
I am an inside track learner.
I have trouble building on the skills from the week before because I don’t remember, or couldn’t master, them. Every class feels like I am starting from scratch, yet I watch the outside track skaters confidently rocket past me. The young woman with whom I shared a high five and fall with on week one speeds past me and jumps the big witches hats.
The pang I feel is not from jealousy but recognition. This is how my son feels when he watches his twin sister just ‘get stuff’. I continue to glide and stick to the safety of the small witches hats. The small ones are for me.
After class one Sunday, I notice the referral for a developmental paediatrician I had stuck to my fridge. I am supposed to follow up with a phone call to get an appointment, but instead I consider that maybe my son is like me, an inside track learner. I postpone the phone call to the paediatrician in favour of emulating Derby Coach, Pi, on my first day—I reassure my kid he is in exactly the right place.
I try to ignore the nuisance of stepping in urine barefoot and I continue reading books about bravery and mistakes. I accept that watching TV is more fun than talking about keeping undies poo-free. I buy a potty that looks like a small toilet and decorate it with a picture of a pirate, colourful stickers and my son’s name. I tell him it’s just for him, no one else … and, slowly, he begins using it.
Amanda Johnson is a Melbourne-based writer, social worker and community services teacher. She has written for Overland Literary Journal, The Big Issue and Visible Ink. Find her published essays, profiles and short stories at amandajohnson.com.au or wait for her first tweet @amanda_jane81.
Image description: A hand using pink and blue chalk to draw a roller skate on the ground.