In just seven days, I will join you--five extraordinary, amazing, hilarious and determined little girls--in toeing up at the starting line for your first 5k race. You'll be jittery and excited. You may feel a little unsure whether you'll succeed. You're going to be surrounded by hundreds of other little girls, some of whom will have come from very different--very privileged--neighborhoods. But we'll do our best to focus, and when we hear the word "Go!" we'll dig down deep inside and draw on twelve weeks of practicing. I have every confidence you are all going to make it across the finish line (and that I will be crying). But the fact is, that tape really marks a beginning. Because all of you are poised to start another kind of race, too: the race against uncertainty, against assaults on your confidence, and against all the odds that teen aged girls in one of DC's poorest neighborhoods are going to have to confront.
If I could have just three wishes for you as you get started on that marathon, this is what they would be:
- Stay Strong. When we started our twice-a-week sessions last March, you couldn't even comprehend a 3.1 mile race. We did a few laps around the confines of your school yard and you begged to rest. But week after week, we ran. When our legs hurt, we ran. When our chests heaved, we ran. And at one point, much to your surprise, we did a full three miles just to prove we could. Each and every one of you has had an afternoon when you wanted to just stop moving, but you didn't. We put our hands on our hearts, and we caught our breath, and we kept running (left, right, left, right) and somehow we found the strength to get it done. Remember that feeling. When people are cruel, when the work becomes hard, and when all you want to do is lie down and quit, you remember just how strong you are. Feel your heart beating, take a deep breath, find your strength and keep on moving.
- Stay Beautiful. We are short, and we are tall. We have braids, and we do not. Our skin is every hue. Frequently, our socks don't match. When we run, we grin and we laugh. We jump and we skip. We nourish ourselves with healthy food (well, mostly, though we do have a penchant for Jolly Rancher candies). We feel the power in our legs. We pump our arms up and down. We feel the energy emanating off of us. We are happy in our bodies. Hold onto that joy. Keep that pride in the connection between your body and your mind. If the world tells you that you are too dark/heavy/short/tall or that you should be blonder/skinnier/curvier to be "pretty," you remember all the incredible and beautiful things that your body can do, then use your powerful legs to move away from that narrow thinking. You are luminous.
- Stay Together. There are so many things our society somehow neglected to provide for you: plentiful and warm clothing, access to fresh food, ample housing for you and your siblings, safe streets. Right under the noses of our national leaders, you are starting your race having to hurtle over joblessness, little access to health care, low graduation rates and high rates of substance abuse. And you know what, it is absolutely not fair and we have failed you. But you do have parents who love you, and siblings to help you. Your teachers are there for you, as are your coaches. Most importantly, you have each other. During our season you argued, and sometimes you disappointed each other; but you also talked it out, supported each other, and hugged each other in the end. You are each others' secret weapon, and together you are unstoppable.