Varsity Jackets and Fight Songs

Posted on January 21, 2020


Last week I wrote about being sexually harassed on my first day of high school in 1979. Today, one of my former students shares her story. I am very excited to introduce you to a woman whose writer’s voice was strong as a teen, and, as you will see, it has only grown stronger and more powerful. BIG THANKS to Anne for sharing her story here.

Guest Post by Anne Henningfeld, AHS Class of 1997

When I entered high school in 1993, along with baggy jeans and flannel shirts, there was one article of clothing I did not want to be without: a varsity jacket. It had a navy blue wool body and calf skin arms, with a stylized version of a maple leaf on the chest and the owner’s name on the back. In our school, male and female athletes wore the exact same jacket. There was no “slim fit” girl’s version, and only rarely did you see a girl wearing her boyfriend’s varsity jacket. At our school, athletes walking the halls were identified by the exact same status symbol. That was how I wanted to be identified.

I was not a great athlete, but by graduation, I earned varsity letters in gymnastics, cross country and track, all no-cut teams. I got those letters by showing up, by working hard, by supporting the team, but never because I contributed points to help us win, or because I placed in a race. I earned those letters with leadership, teamwork, and commitment, what I would call “off-court skills.”

While I may have doubted that my athletic skills had earned me the letters, I never doubted that I was an important part of the team, and part of the large group of boys and girls that represented Adrian High School on the varsity field. I was proud of my high school, and I felt they were proud of me. They gave me those letters, the same letters they gave the boys, and we all earned them, and we all wore them.

“Why then,” I wondered, one Friday night in the stands with the marching band (another opportunity in which I wore the colors and represented my school), “did our school fight song only celebrate the men?”

I couldn’t help but sing the words “Yours is courage, ours is faith, that you are valiant men” in my head while I crashed my cymbals. Over and over again, year after year, I’d been singing that song, convincing myself that the word “men” also included me. “Men” was a universal term, I’d been told. Of course the fight song was for the girls too. It was an old song, before Title IX, what were we supposed to do, change the words?

Yes. That was exactly what I thought we should do. And I wrote about it for a class assignment, then from the class assignment, I took it to the school newspaper. The school newspaper put it on the front page, below the fold.

I was worried about the prominence of the article. I didn’t feel like arguing with sexist classmates. I was, like many teenagers, both overly confident and terrified of everything. I couldn’t even remember why I thought it was a good idea to submit it to the paper. But then people, my French teacher, an English teacher I didn’t know, classmates, teammates, coaches, my father (a teacher and coach at our school), began telling me how much they appreciated the article, how much they supported the alternate lyrics I proposed in the article. I was proud of my school community, proud that I wasn’t having to argue, proud that adults listened to students in our school, proud to wear that jacket. I was proud enough to even mention the article to our school principal in a hallway one day. I was ready for next steps. How were we going to get these lyrics changed?

He looked at me and told me the school newspaper was an inappropriate place for that piece. It was an opinion, and if opinion belonged anywhere in the newspaper it was in the editorial section, not on the front page. And my piece didn’t even belong in the editorial section. He would be having a conversation with the newspaper staff about journalistic practices. And then he walked away.

20200121_113603That was 24 years ago. I don’t know what’s happened to the fashion of the varsity jacket, or the current state of athletics at my alma mater, but I know that the words to our school fight song remain unchanged. I know that my pride in my school wasn’t destroyed by one difficult administrator, but I do know that he managed to silence my voice on that issue. He did an excellent job of making me feel like I’d done something wrong. It was a very powerful tactic to use on a young woman steeped in a culture of people-pleasing.

That was 24 years ago. Students don’t wear giant flannel shirts and listen to Alanis Morissette on repeat on their Discmen. We’re not all swarming to AOL, the world’s largest website. We aren’t scouring toy stores for Tomagatchis and Tickle Me Elmos.

But everyone in Adrian is still singing about valiant men. In 2020.

High school athletics set me on the path to develop leadership skills and a strong sense of integrity. At sixteen, though, I wasn’t ready to take on the powerful men who ran our school over a school fight song. Perhaps today though, in 2020, when the world leader on climate change is sixteen years old, when the loudest gun control advocates in the United States are teens who survived school shootings, and when a seventeen year old recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, the teens of Adrian High School understand more about the power of their voices than I did in 1996.

I didn’t know what kind of adult I was going to become when I was in high school, although I think I would have liked me as I am today. I still run, I coach gymnastics, I root for the mildly talented kid who works harder than everyone else and achieves less, and when a teen raises their voice, not only do I listen, but I stand with them. Against other adults. I give them money. I am the opposite of my old principal. Not everything I learned from high school athletics happened in the gym.

Anne Henningfeld, MA, CTRS is a graduate of Adrian High School, Alma College and the University of Toledo. With an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and a Master’s Degree in Therapeutic Recreation, Anne is the founder and managing partner of Beyond Recreation, a consulting firm dedicated to creating opportunities for deep connection through recreation and leisure. She has over ten years experience directing summer camps, and is now a full-time summer camp staff trainer, traveling to camps across the country speaking and engaging young adult camp counselors.

Anne is a two-time recipient of the Health Education Award of Distinction from the National Hemophilia Foundation, and the 2009 Michigan Hemophilia Professional of the year. Anne currently spends the off-season researching and improving her staff training modules, writing articles and creative pieces, and reading a lot of books, while accompanying her husband Michael as he performs in the global tour of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza.