I’ve always been very good at English. English Literature in particular. It just came very naturally to me: why wouldn’t you be able to see that the writer’s use of a raven looming in the windowsill is actually a metaphor for the creeping sense of dread that the protagonist is experiencing? It’s so obvious. Next you’ll be saying the writer “just wanted the carpet to be red”, rather than recognising the Western cultural significance of the colour red as a warning, yet the significance in some Eastern cultures of red as a colour for celebration and luck, demonstrating the narrator’s conflicted emotions, or ignoring the intertextual reference to Stanley’s red pyjamas in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.  What you’re probably thinking right now is that this is a strange way to start an article about Roller Derby. Bear with me, I’ll get there.  

What I wasn’t good at? Geography. German. Dance. Simple solution though, drop them for GCSE. A cunning plan!  When it came to A Levels, English Literature was an easy choice. Same with degree level, where my ‘if it’s difficult I won’t do it’ approach was only able to flourish as I could pick my own modules. Bored to tears by the Bard? Just swap the module on Shakespearean Tragedy for a film module from the school of American Studies. Done. Easy. The result? I never really learned resilience. I never really learned what it meant to not be very good at something and stick at it. If it was hard, I just didn’t do it. I tried to start running about two years ago: I didn’t get fit after my first mile so threw my trainers to languish at the back of the wardrobe. 

So how does this link to Roller Derby? I’m getting there.  

I teach secondary school English and I love my job; a lot of students will recognise me for getting overexcited at the whiteboard, pen in hand, as I’ve just made a new connection between Othello’s language in Act 1 Scene 1 and how that actually (spoiler alert for a 500 year old play)  foreshadows his death in Act Five! However, a steep learning curve for me during my PGCE was that not everyone I teach will feel the same way. Not every student will be excited to discuss Arthur Miller’s use of stage directions to establish the complexities of post-War USA; some students will think the raven is on the windowsill because birds sit on windowsills and the carpet is red because that’s what colour carpet the author has, and they’re not wrong. 

Every day, every lesson I encourage students; I give them praise, constructive feedback, I tell them their ideas are right if they can justify them. I remind them that progress takes time, that they won’t leap from a grade 4 to a grade 7 overnight. I encourage them to see that you need to work hard, a little bit at time, to get where you want to go, and that working on it in your own time will help. I scold them for not taking the work seriously, for making too many jokes. I tell them that it doesn’t mean they can’t do it just because it looks hard, or not to decide they can’t do it before they’ve even attempted. I explain that even though their friend has reached their target before them, it doesn’t mean they can’t as after all, you can’t measure anyone else’s success against your own. These things are bread and butter for any self-respecting teacher, but something I think we often forget is that it’s easier to say these things when you can do it. It’s easier to say you’ll be able to remember all the characters in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ when it comes to the exam when you yourself can remember them all. Sometimes, I forget that learning things, particularly new things, is hard. 

And learning Roller Derby is hard. Really bloody hard. (See, I told you I’d get there.) and it requires a lot of resilience: something I preach a lot about on a day to day basis, but am guilty of not having a lot of myself.  

Last March, for the first time in a long time, Roller Derby reminded me that you won’t be a natural at everything, that you won’t be the best at everything, but it doesn’t matter as long as you are doing the best you can. My name is Ashlea and I am proud to say that I am a bit rubbish at Roller Derby. People who have trained with me with certainly testify this point – my first ever scrim gained me the name of ‘the octopus’ for my flailing arms, I still hit the deck at least five times a session and will most commonly be found yelping “I’m okay”. My derby name came about from my habit of just smashing into things – walls, water bottles, other people – in a bid to stop myself, hence: Smash Bandicoot. I’m really not very good at roller skating, let alone the derby part. I don’t have natural grace or elegance or even balance so one year in staying up right is still no mean feat.  I’ve experienced the most intense frustration more times that I can possibly count, sworn at my feet when trying to master a new move. I actively have to supress a flinch which sees me throw my right arm in the air when I think I might fall. It turns out several emotions reduce me immediately to tears, including anger, exasperation, disappointment, embarrassment, happiness, pain and on one strange occasion, hunger. (Last minute edit: for proof of this, I spent most of my first session with main league crying for various reasons. Hi guys! It’s me, that lanky blonde girl with a tearstained face!)  

What doesn’t make it better? I’m a terrible student. All those lovely, Miss Honey esque sayings I use every day? Out the window on a Thursday night. Someone shows me how to jump and my instant reaction is “that looks really hard, I won’t be able to do it”. It’s easier to be loud and jokey, because then people might not realise how 27 in 5 actually terrifies the living daylights out of me. I’m constantly comparing myself with “he started after I did, but he can do derby stops and I can’t… she started the same time as me but she’s already in main league… what’s wrong with me?” even though I know it takes time. I don’t recognise that the fact I can do two toe stop runs when last week I couldn’t do any is an achievement, because I’m too fixated on the fact that you need to do three to get ‘signed off’.  

It’s amazing how much “okay, so to transition, you want to lift your back foot off the ground, but keep your hips turned but not all the way because then it won’t work and turn your head first because if you’re looking that way you’ll find it easier and make sure your feet are far enough apart and don’t look down because you’ll overbalance” reminds me of “okay, so start your paragraph with a point, but it needs to be one you can develop further, then find some evidence from the text but make sure it doesn’t have the same phrasing as your point, and try to find something which has a language feature because if you don’t identify a language feature you can’t get higher than a 3, and then make sure you explain it in detail, but be sure to link in some contextual features and make sure you end the paragraph by coming back to your first point.”. How much “fab! That’s a transition! Now, do it again but at a faster pace” feels like “What a great first paragraph! Now write three more in forty minutes.”. The similarity between, “great! Now you can do that, derby stops!” and “fantastic, you’ve achieved your target, now let’s give you a new one!” is unbelievable. Learning is exhausting, particularly when you’ve got very little confidence in your ability.  

So why haven’t I quit Roller Derby if I’m so terrible? Because I love it. I love feeling strong and powerful: the adrenaline high after a scrim practice is second to none. And, moreover, it’s made me better at my job. I’ve always spent dedicated time with students who need to improve but I have new kind of empathy, a new understanding of the frustrations my students experience. I see how amazingly kind and patient and determined the session leaders are and I aspire to be like them.