I was still just a kid, 12 years old, when I experienced the horror of co-ed gym class for the first time, starting seventh grade in Gap Kids khakis with flowers embroidered on the pockets. (The girls in my carpool started seventh grade in low-slung hip-hugger jeans and tight-fitting tops.)
The gym teacher was a nice enough man, despite the fact that he subscribed to the social Darwinist theory of gym teaching. Every day, he divided the students into teams, assigned a team captain and let them administer the horrifying procedure of picking teams. I was almost always picked last. I can’t even blame my team captains for their choice—I was a terrible athlete. My parents did their best: They signed me up for soccer, sent me to basketball camps and spent hours throwing footballs and Frisbees at me, but my body was not designed for intramural sports.
Though I was dismal in gym, my seventh-grade self discovered something wonderful: I could draw, and surprisingly well for someone who seemed to have no neural pathways from her hands to her brain. I was the only student to have 100 percent in the art class at midterm. One week, the teacher told us to go home and draw something upside-down. I drew a complicated sketch of my mother’s Lladro figurine. The boy next to me, a star athlete, drew a baseball. While I admired his cleverness in evading the challenging part of the assignment (learning to draw accurately while looking at an object in a new way), it was nice to finally be the one who was better at something.
When I was in 10th grade, and required to take gym again, I convinced my mother to get me a doctor’s note to excuse me from repeating the horror of seventh grade. I took a social-dance class instead, happily learning the foxtrot and tango with other nerds, thrilled to not be playing basketball with our peers.
A few weeks ago, I found myself walking through Deseret Book. Deseret Book always makes me feel sad, and I’ve never understood why, but I think it has something to do with basketball. For 23 years, I tried to be good at the team sport that is Mormonism. My parents did their best: They sent me to Especially For Youth and girls camp. They spent hours throwing issues of New Era and John Bytheway books at me, but my spirit was not designed for intramural religion. Walking through Deseret Book reminds me of all my failures as a Mormon. Why don’t I want to read this book about submitting to my husband as Eve did? Why do I fight the urge to hide Elder Packer’s cute book of bird illustrations under a stack of cupcake cookbooks?
I’m not good at Mormonism, and for years, my fellow Mormon teammates responded to me in a variety of ways: shuffling me into callings where I couldn’t ruin the game for the other kids with my pro-feminist interpretation of scripture, or assuring me that I’d understand my role as a woman after I had children. Often, Mormons would try to pick me first for their teams, taking special interest in teaching me the ways of Mormonism, gently telling me that, just as you can’t “travel” in basketball, it’s against the rules to question the words of a living prophet.
Their kindness just made it harder every time I failed.
Sometimes, my fellow Mormon teammates were crueler than any seventh-grade jock, belittling my inability to conform to Mormonism by calling for my excommunication or asking why I couldn’t “leave the church alone.” Junior high gym class was a grade-A bitch, but none of the students ever asked the teacher to kick me out of class. And while there is an entire Internet filled with the equivalent of social-dance classes for fringy Mormons, it doesn’t make me any less sad when I realize that my fellow social dancers—the LGBT friends and allies, the feminists, the doubters—will never be truly at home in the gym class of Mormonism.
In seventh grade, I stopped feeling so bad about basketball when I learned I could draw. But I realized in Deseret Book that I haven’t forgiven myself for being bad at Mormonism. As I walked past another stack of books intended to remind women that they really don’t want the priesthood, I thought about the way a piece of charcoal feels in my hand as it slides across a blank page. I remember the pride I felt in mastering that upside-down Lladro.
In art class, my ability to see things differently was the thing that made me great. I’m not good at basketball and I’m not good at Mormonism, but I can draw. I can advocate for my LGBT teammates, who just want to play by the same rules as everyone else. I can teach my daughter that she’s capable and worthy of holding any type of power. The ability to play basketball isn’t a moral imperative, and a failure at Mormonism isn’t a failure in human decency.
I tell myself this as the charcoal grows warm in my hand and heals the pain in my soul.