Becky was upset with her lone at-bat. After the game, she expressed frustration to her parents, whose tempers flared.
“I’m quitting,” Becky quipped.
“Can’t say I blame you,” Becky’s dad, Charles agreed.
“Coach is so stupid. I think she’s got something against travel ball players. She can’t really believe that you aren’t one of the best nine players,” Becky’s mom, Tammy stated.
The toxic conversation continued during the short ride home, with Becky, arms folded across her chest, listening to her parents belittle her coach, Shelia Payne.
Charles Dixon was so worked up by the time he got home, he slammed the door of the family sedan as he exited and announced, “I’ve had enough. Coach Payne is gonna get a piece of my mind!”
Shelia Payne, always the last to leave the field, had just finished locking away the softball equipment and was reaching for the light switch, when her cell buzzed from her pocket.
“What’s up, Jaz,” Shelia asked.
“Mommy, when are you coming home?” Shelia Payne’s four-year-old whined.
“Baby, I’ll be home in a few – just finishing up here. Where’s Lilly?” Payne asked about the babysitter.
“I’m right here Miss Payne,” Lilly spoke into the speaker.
“Hi Lilly, I’ll be there in about twenty. Thank you for staying late. The game went to extras.”
“No worries, Miss Payne. Did you win?”
Shelia Payne squeezed her tired eyes and answered in an exasperated voice.
“Lost by one.”
It had already been a long season for Coach Payne and her Lady Bison softball team. This, her seventh season, was proving to be the most challenging. The expectations were high, coming off a record-setting campaign a year earlier. However, a core of talented seniors had graduated, leaving the Bison with a group of inexperienced underclassmen, who were learning on the go.
During the last year, Shelia Payne had not only lost a group of seniors, but she also lost her husband. Ron Payne had woken one morning and communicated to her that he no longer wanted to be married. So, he left – and had not been heard from since. That was nearly ten months ago.
Being a single mother trying to make it on a teacher’s salary proved to be difficult. Childcare alone left Shelia no choice but to sell the three-bedroom house she had shared with Ron and move to a clean but cramped apartment on the other side of town.
Softball had provided a positive distraction, but the losses were piling up and Shelia could hear the murmurs from parents in the bleachers. She knew it would only be a matter of time before someone might officially complain.
Shelia Payne pulled into the last stall in the crowded parking lot of her apartment complex shortly before 10:00 p.m. She was exhausted and hungry, having been up before the sun had risen and not remembering the last time she had sat down to eat. She had seen her daughter Jazmine that morning, and had looked forward to this moment all day, when she would finally see her again.
As she gathered her things and walked across the dimly lit lot, her phone buzzed once again from the pocket of her shorts.
She frowned and considered not answering, but curiosity forced her to push the green button.
“Hello, this is Shelia Payne,” her voice bold.
“Coach, this is, uh… This is Charles Dixon – Becky Dixon’s dad,” his voice edged with agitation.
Shelia Payne stopped near the front door of her apartment complex and tried to exercise a level of patience as she closed her eyes and measured her response.
“Mr. Dixon, what can I do for you?”
“My daughter is thinking about quitting the team. She’s been crying ever since we left the field. You’ve made her feel terrible, worthless, like she ain’t good enough. Which is bull. I don’t know how you choose who plays but my wife and I… and not just us – others think it, too – you’re not playing the right kids. Do you even want to win?”
Shelia Payne, blindsided by the accusation, started to respond but was cutoff.
“You should see Becky play during the summer. She’s on one of the best travel ball teams in the country. She starts every game at third and hits cleanup. You won’t even give her a look. Maybe you ought to talk to her club coach – he’ll tell you how good she is,” Charles Dixon had a demanding quality to his voice as he finished rambling.
Shelia Payne wasn’t in the mood for what she felt was an unfair attack, late at night, especially after the day she had had – or better yet, the hellish year.
She started to defend herself but thought better of it, instead opting for compassion.
“…Mr. Dixon,” she took an impossibly deep breath, “I’m sorry Becky is having a hard time with this. My decision on who plays is – “
Again, Shelia Payne was cutoff.
“I don’t want to hear some cheap apology,” Dixon abruptly responded. “You can either start playing her or she’ll quit. And if she does, I’ll have your job. I know members of the board and I’m not afraid of letting them know just how terrible you are as a coach – how you’ve mistreated my daughter and others. You have a clear disgusting bias and it’s sad what you’re doing to these kids.”
Shelia Payne’s eyes filled with angry tears.
“Mr. Dixon, this conversation is over,” she said tersely and ended the connection.
At the Dixon home, Charles looked at his wife and shook his head.
“Can you believe that? She hung up on me.”
Tammy consoled her husband.
“At least you told her what she needed to hear. A woman like that has no business coaching kids. I think you need to go up to the school tomorrow and let Mr. James know.”
Charles Dixon nodded in agreement.
“First thing in the morning,” he said.
The next morning, Shelia Payne was rushing to be at work on time. She had spent much of the night tossing and turning, bothered by the accusations made by Charles Dixon. By the time her mind had quit racing, Jazmine was standing bedside at 3 a.m., having experienced a bad dream.
Shelia Payne was running on fumes – nothing unusual for a single mom.
After dropping off Jazmine at the Daycare Center, Shelia Johnson walked into the high school just minutes before her first hour class was to begin.
Standing in the doorway of her classroom, the school’s principal, Gordan James stood firmly.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” Shelia nervously apologized.
Mr. James held up a passive hand, dismissing it.
“You’ve got bigger problems,” James stated and motioned Shelia to an area where they could talk privately.
“Charles Dixon was in the office waiting for me this morning before I even had a chance to get a cup of coffee.”
Shelia Payne nodded.
“You know about this?” asked James.
“He called me last night after the game, voicing a string of complaints.”
“Then you know he’s mad.”
“He’s still waiting in the office – wants to have a meeting.”
“What about my class?”
“We’ll cover it,” James said.
“Okay. I thought it might come to this,” admitted Payne. “I was up most of the night thinking about what to say.”
“I wouldn't expect anything less from you," James acknowledged.
Feeling emboldened by her thoughts but beaten down by personal and professional defeats, Shelia Payne followed Gordan James back to the office for a meeting with the disgruntled parent.
As the three sat around a small rounded table in the squared office space, Charles Dixon listed off the same grievances Shelia had heard the night before.
She could see the passion in his narrowed eyes, the anger in his reddened face, and the intensity of his clenched fists.
She let him speak, never once interrupting.
Nearly fifteen minutes later, Mr. James turned to Shelia Payne and asked if she’d like to respond.
Shelia collected herself, found some courage for her voice, and looked directly at the intimidating face before her.
“Mr. Dixon – “she started before being interrupted.
“I don’t want another pathetic apology,” he chided her.
Shelia took a deep breath and held it. Then she forced a wry smile.
“As I was about to say – being a mother of a child, I understand where your loyalty is. I get why you have the perspective you have.”
“It’s not perspective – it’s the ability to evaluate talent,” he retorted.
“Okay, call it what you want. But the fact is, I have 18 girls on the team. My concern is equally divided among the group. Your concern is for one. See the difference?”
“No, I don’t,” he shot back.
“Okay, well let’s approach it differently. Of the nine starters, who do you think Becky should be playing in place of?”
Charles Dixon wriggled about in his seat as he seemed to have a thought but was reluctant to reveal it.
He stammered and hedged, “Well, I can think of a few,” he finally admitted.
“Okay, let’s hear the names,” Payne said with confidence.
Dixon’s eyes darted toward Gordan James and were met with a nod.
“Only nine can play at a time, Charles. It’s a legitimate question,” James stated.
Dixon folded his hands together on the table and stared at them before giving a name.
“Marley Jenkins – she hadn’t got a hit in two games,” he held his chin high with the choice.
Shelia Johnson turned to Gordan James.
“Mr. Jenkins has his planning period this hour, correct?” she asked.
“He does,” James confirmed.
Shelia Payne sat up straight and looked back to Charles Dixon.
“Mr. Dixon would you be okay with us bringing in Mr. Jenkins so we can all have a discussion as to why your daughter should be playing instead of his?”
Dixon, suddenly on his heels and backtracking, “Of course not. That’s your job. You’re the one getting paid to make these decisions!”
Shelia Johnson quipped, “Yes, all that money…” She smiled and continued, “I think it’s only fair that if you’re going to state that Becky should be playing ahead of Marley that you be willing to tell her father as to why you believe that. Because, as you’ve made clear – it’s my job to make these decisions – and I don’t see it that way.”
Dixon wriggled in his seat and looked to Gordan James for support but didn’t find any.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” James affirmed.
“Okay… well, how about Lacey Moore? I know Becky is better than her,” Dixon stammered and offered an alternative.
“Same process,” she explained.
“This is stupid!” Charles Dixon slammed his clenched fist on the table, causing Gordan James to stand and address the action.
“Mr. Dixon, hear me out – you’re out of line. Coach Payne, who by the way has given this more time than deserved, has made two valid points. Her decisions are influenced by what’s best for 18 – yours for one. Then, you’ve admitted as much, it’s her job to do so. Given that, you’ve been provided an opportunity to explain to a parent whose daughter you think yours should replace – a move you’re refusing to make. So, just think for a minute – who is in the wrong here? Do you really think Coach Payne has it out for your daughter?”
Charles Dixon rested his hands atop his head and leaned back, exasperated.
James continued, “Look, these coaches like Miss Payne are generally good, fair people. She doesn’t get paid much to do this and has a life outside of softball. She’s qualified. She’s proven she can win. She’s been generous with her time and has shown concern for your concerns. And, I think if you’ll take some time to think about this and focus on how your daughter can be a better player, better teammate you’ll be doing more for her than complaining about her lack of playing time.”
Charles Dixon let his body go slack and he shook his head, defeated.
“I don’t agree with you coach… but I also can’t argue with your logic,” he admitted. “I’m sorry if I’ve come across a little strong – I just want what’s best for Becky.”
“I do, too,” Payne responded.
Charles Dixon paused, and a look of resignation appeared upon his face as he lowered his voice and struck a reluctant tone.
“So, with that said… What can my daughter do to get better and help the team?”
Coach Payne offered a genuine smile, relaxed, and answered.
“Now, that’s a conversation worth having.”
Jerrad Hardin is a coach and author who shares stories and experiences to positively influence perspectives.
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