A Different Medal of Honor by Megan Schaefer

It was the summer of 2008. School was right around the corner, and fall sports were in action. It was the last day of volleyball tryouts, and everyone was exhausted, due to the long week of strenuous conditioning and intensive drills. I had been playing volleyball since the fifth grade, and I was excited for my chance to be on Varsity as an upcoming junior. My coach believed in pulling each player aside separately to discuss her role and position on the team for the season. Meanwhile, the remaining girls would scrimmage on the two courts until their names were called.

During that late afternoon, I was getting impatient as I watched all of my teammates get called before me. Is she calling the players from best to worst? My stomach was churning, and my hands were soaked with sweat as my heart jumped out of my chest with every beat.

Then, the freshman coach came out and yelled across the gym, “Megan, you’re up next.”

I felt dizzy as I stumbled to the coach’s office. It was an arduous task just to put one foot in front of the other. Why am I so nervous? I worked hard all summer; there is no reason I won’t play this year. However, I was in for an unpleasant surprise.

“Megan, please take a seat.” These were the last four words that my coach would say that day that would not sink my heart.

She continued, “Megan, you have worked so hard this summer. We are so impressed with your work ethic and the improvement you have made. You are truly a leader out there on that court. However…”

Whew! What a relief! I knew there was nothing to worry about after all. Just as I completely convinced myself of having a starting position on the team, my thoughts were cut off as she continued her previous statement. “Emily is younger, and we think she has more potential. She has been playing club volleyball since her third grade year, and look at her sister Nicole. She has already helped us win two state titles. We know this doesn’t seem like a fair decision, but we are giving Emily the starting position. We hope you understand. You will be our backup defensive specialist. Do you accept your role on this team?”

My jaw dropped to the floor as my heart sank to a bottomless pit of despair and frustration. Don’t show you’re upset. That shows weakness. Hold your ground, and act mature. I had a thousand tears welling up in the corners of my eyes, but I swallowed my pride to avoid embarrassment and replied, “Yes, I accept my role as the backup player this year.”

As I walked out of that room, I knew I had failed myself. I didn’t put up a single argument; I let her stomp all over me. I gave her the impression that I understood the justifications of not playing, due to my age, family, and past club experience. This is not who I am. I wasn’t raised to let people walk over me. I knew it was too late though. I had agreed to play the backup role, and from there on out, I would have to accept it. Besides, it was my own fault.  I had presented myself with ignorance and naivety.  I walked out of the gym with my head down, hoping to wake up from a bad dream.

The season went on, just like I knew it would. I sat on the hard wooden bench game after game, as I watched all of my teammates cheer and scream with each victory they earned along the way. I was dying inside, but I never showed it on the outside. I clapped and yelled for every point we earned. I smiled during the whole game, giving my teammates as much support and encouragement as I could. After all, what else was I good for?  I don’t want people to think I’m a sore loser. And most importantly, I have to do it for my teammates. I can’t disappoint them. We are a team. And I used that philosophy for the rest of the year. I disliked my coach for the way she took advantage of me, but I never made that clear. I never showed my teammates the disappointment I felt as I sat on the lonely bench. Not only did my presentation affect my teammates and my coach, but I had fans observing my actions as well. I couldn’t show them that I was upset and hurt every game; that would show selfishness and jealousy. That year, my team went on to win a state championship. By that point of the season, I was using every ounce of energy to force that smile on my face and keep my calm. Fans and parents were storming the court, wishing all of us congratulations for our championship. With each congratulations, I swallowed the large lump in my throat and held the river of tears back. I felt worthless and unimportant. That concluded my junior year of volleyball. It would only be a short nine months later from that crisp November afternoon that I would be back in that musty coach’s office again, waiting for the verdict of playing time.

*          *          *

It was now the summer of 2009. And just like the last year, I had been playing volleyball all summer. I found myself in the same position as the previous season during tryouts, as I watched all my Varsity teammates get called before me. It can’t be any worse than last year. They will come out soon enough and call my name.

“Megan, you’re up next,” one of the coaches called.

I ran to the office in the back of the hallway. That night before, I had twisted and turned in bed all night, trying to formulate the words I would say to her. Do I call her Coach or Michelle? Do I come out and ask for more playing time, or do I tell her that I deserve more playing time? If she ignores my request, do I quit the team and look like a failure to the rest of the community, or do I painfully stick it out like last year? Do I say thank you if she makes a decision that hurts me? And most importantly, do I hold back my emotions if she benches me for the season again?

“Megan, as we look at your stats from the scrimmages in the summer, we realize you are qualified to compete at a high level for this team. But, we are very sorry to tell you that we are going to keep Emily at this position. She will be here another year longer, and the more experience she gets this year, the more she will offer to the team next year. We hope you understand and will accept your role on this team just like last year.”

Here goes nothing. “Coach, may I please say a few words?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

Gathering my composure, I began, “I have given a hundred and ten percent effort out there on that court. If you look at the stats in your hand right now, you will find that Emily and I have performed equally this summer. Our percentages in digs are nearly equal. I am sorry that I haven’t played club volleyball since I was a little girl and that my sister didn’t win a state title for you, but that doesn’t change how I can perform.  I know you are the coach, and this is your choice, but I’m asking you to reconsider your choice. Please, just give me a chance.”

“Megan, we have made our final decision. However, things can change during the season. Just keep working hard.”

“Okay, thanks for listening,” I replied politely but with obvious disappointment in my voice.

No matter how upset I was with her at the time, I knew she was older than me, and I still had to show respect. I did not want to appear selfish, and I was not going to argue with her final decision. It would not get me anywhere, and I knew she would lose respect for me. I worked hard the rest of that summer and kept a positive attitude throughout the season. I was benched the first couple games of the season; then, the day finally came. She gave me a chance, and I played my heart out.

After that game, I earned my starting position on the team. It seemed like it was never going to happen, but it finally did. I was ecstatic. We went on to win a state championship that year, and I was nominated for having the “play of the game” when I dove across the court to pop the volleyball up in the air.

Looking back now, my fondest memories are not winning the state championship my senior year and finally persuading my coach to get what I wanted. They are those fifteen minute conversations that felt like an eternity in the coach’s office. I developed as a person through the sport of volleyball, and I found strength in myself during my weakest moments. I learned how to confront people in my life, without showing disrespect and jealousy. As I was awarded my medal that day, I didn’t think of it as a state championship medal. It was a medal of honor. No, I didn’t save a soldier’s life, but I finally built up the courage and strength to face my fears. And just as soldiers keep those medals of honor close to their hearts, so will I with mine because it marks one of the biggest moments in my life.