The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Score One for Team Spirit
Philippe Sainvil

In my country, Haiti, soccer is the number one sport. I don’t remember the exact age I was when I started playing, but by the time I was 7, I was pretty good. Every time I stepped on a soccer field, when I smelled the grass or when I kicked the ball, I got a feeling of liberation. It was like all the problems, all the talking, all the drama that I had in my life vanished, and a new door for fun and joy opened.

I used to play with my three brothers, my cousin, and friends from the neighborhood. We all shared the same language, signals, and style of playing. For example, to ask for a pass, you’d stick your tongue out and shake it. To ask for a long pass you’d say, “Male” (meaning “I’m going for it”). We rarely did high or long passes; instead we mostly did footwork and kept the ball on the grass, where we’d have more control over it. These tricks made our games exciting and fast-paced.

I had to give up those games with my friends and family when I moved to New York. When I left Haiti, I thought I’d be attending a high school just like in the movies, with white American students. But I wound up attending an immigrant school, so there were no native-born Americans at all. Instead, there were kids from all around the world.

‘Sit With Us’

I liked the fact that I was able to explore many different cultures all in the same place. That was amazing, especially during Culture Day. On Culture Day we had flags and colors everywhere, and students brought food, juice, candy, or anything from their native lands to share with others. Every country put their food out in one or two classrooms, and all the students and school staff visited and ate in every room. I was blown away, especially by the Asian foods.

Most of the time, though, the school was divided. One lunch period during my first week at the school, I saw that most tables in the cafeteria were full. I sat next to some Middle Eastern students. After about 45 seconds, a Haitian student came up to me and said, “Aren’t you Haitian?”

I said, “Yeah.”

“Then why are you sitting with the Arab people? Come sit with us,” he said in Creole (the language of Haiti).

I did not fully understand why he said that, but I just got up and followed his advice. I was new to the school and I was a little lost. I figured he had been there longer, so he knew better.

Insults Fly

After that, I noticed that the whole cafeteria was divided by language or nationality. Haitians had lunch with Haitians, Eastern Europeans with Eastern Europeans, Africans with Africans, Spanish speakers with Spanish speakers, and so it went. Besides this, discrimination and insults between the different groups were common. Walking through the hallways, you could hear people talk crap about other groups, stuff like:

“These European people dress stupidly.”

“Africans sound like monkeys.”

“Mexicans are short and ugly.”

Fortunately, we did have one big thing in common. Almost everyone in the school loved soccer, since it was popular in all of our native countries. A group of us who wanted to play got together and begged our principal to try to get us into a league. But even though we had a basketball team that got jerseys, balls, and everything they needed, he told us he did not have enough money to fund a soccer team.

An Exciting Chance

After I’d been in the school a year, we moved as a school to a new building, Lafayette Educational Complex, that we shared with other high schools. (We had one floor to ourselves.) Each year, the schools in this building combined to form one soccer team. The previous year that team had had the worst record in the local soccer league. They were at the bottom of the table with no draws and no wins, only losses.

As soon as we arrived at our new building, all of us in the international high school who wanted to play soccer sent our medical sheets and permission slips to the athletic director. We were excited and confident. When the time came for us to meet the coach, we arrived at the school 30 minutes early. The coach was amazed at how many of us made the trip. “We’re going to have a good season,” he said.

When the season started, it turned out that 20 out of 25 players on the team were from the international high school. Even though we were enthusiastic, the first days of practice turned out badly. The way we were divided at school carried over to the soccer field.

image by Froylan Garcia

Most of us kept passing the ball only to players from our own country. We all knew that we should pass the ball to any teammates who were open, no matter what their nationality, but we just didn’t do it. To be honest, I was as bad as anyone. If I had the ball I’d rather pass it to a Haitian, even if there were three other players open in a better situation.

Cooperate or Else

After about a week, we had a team meeting. It was a sunny afternoon before we started practice and the coach brought us all together in the middle of the pitch. We were wondering what it was about.

He started by complimenting us, saying, “I’ve seen you practicing and I can tell that you are all talented players.” Then he continued, “But we lack some things as a team, and these qualities that we lack are essential to success.”

He told us that if we didn’t play with sportsmanship, leadership, and teamwork, we would not just lose all season, we would no longer have a team. The school had had so many losses during previous seasons, he said, they were thinking about getting rid of the soccer team altogether. “Those who do not want to show teamwork will either be on the bench or off the team,” he said finally.

Passion Proved Stronger

At first, some of us got upset.

“Africans and Mexicans suck. I will not play with these dumb players…”

“I’m not playing with Russians; they are harassing me!”

But most of us stayed on the team and tried to change our way of playing. Because everyone was making the effort, it was easier than it would have been otherwise. We started to work together and look out for one another. Everyone began passing the ball around to anyone on the team, and soon we were playing real soccer with a lot of passing. Little by little, our passion for soccer proved stronger than our prejudice and division.

At last the season began. From the beginning, we were winning games with scores of 13-0 or 7-2. Our effort to come together was paying off, not only because of the winning scores, but because we were having more fun than we would ever have imagined.

Famously Successful

When it came time to face the team that was our league’s defending champion, everyone knew that it wouldn’t be easy. We were nervous. It was a home game for us and it was the first time we’d had so many spectators—both students and school staff. Also, because we had turned the team around so much already, we were making news: There was a New York Daily News reporter watching the game and taking pictures.

I will never forget that special September afternoon. We won the game 3-2, and I scored the first two goals. This was a huge victory and the Daily News reporter interviewed me and some other players. We made it into the newspaper, where we were featured in a three-page article with lots of photos. “Infusion of Immigrants Transforms Last-Place Lafayette,” read the headline.

After that we no longer just believed that we could go far, we knew it. The newspaper article was pasted all over our building, and they put up a big poster of the soccer team in the school weight room. We felt important and appreciated, like our hard work was taken seriously. We were proud of ourselves.

True Liberation

After all the fun we’d had as a team, we became pretty close. We began to hang out together, even outside of practice. We’d joke together and say “What’s up” or “Hey” every time we saw each other.

Some of us ended up being good friends, and still are now. I made friends with a Russian and an African teammate. We still don’t sit together in the cafeteria during lunch period, but it’s not because we’re enemies. I think it’s because we’ve been doing things this way for so long that it’s become a habit and it’s hard to break.

Playing soccer with Haitians is still fun to me, but when you play with other folks you get to try out different styles of soccer. You also feel more professional, like the pro players on TV who have teammates from all around the world. Each player has a unique style and skill.

To this day, I get the very same feeling of liberation when I play soccer that I used to get as a kid back in Haiti. But now, I see how soccer can liberate us even from our divisions.

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