The Pleated Skirt Playground

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Contently Deranged Travelers


A humorous tale of gender discrimination in the 1970s and a pushy netball mum.

Submitted: October 30, 2017

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Submitted: October 30, 2017

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People really do see stars when they get stunned. Dexter Dingle found that out during his first and only game of rugby at school. Dex liked stars, he really did; but not those induced by having his cranium crushed in a rugby scrum. Rugby was not for him, so he decided to quit in favour of something less violent, like chess or ludo.

Sadly, sport was a required activity at school, and board games were not deemed sports. Dex had three winter sports to choose from: rugby, soccer and hockey. Having tried rugby and found it wanting, Dex looked at the other options. He ruled out soccer when he saw the way players bounced the ball off their heads. That had to hurt, and his head had been punished enough already. Hockey was even worse. Players used curved clubs to propel a small hard ball at each other with potentially lethal effect. It seemed that, no matter which sport Dex chose, he would be at risk of grievous bodily harm. Besides, sports took too much effort. Dex preferred to save his energy for important things, like dashing for a nearly missed bus, or running away from rabid dogs.

Short of playing truant or throwing a sickie on sports days, the only way Dex could get out of sports was to be excused on account of his delicate physique. He wasn’t really delicate; but he was a bit of a weed, and that ought to count for something. He decided to ask his father for a note to excuse him from sports.

Mr Dingle was disinclined to provide such a note. He had been a keen rugby player in his youth, and he still enjoyed the sport; albeit exclusively from the comfort of his sofa by the TV. ‘You stick to rugby, my boy,’ he said. ‘I was proud of the bruises that I got from rugby. It’s all part of being a man.’ Mr Dingle punctuated this sage advice with a window rattling belch. ‘Now bugger off and fetch me a beer.’

Dex didn’t think much of his father’s advice. If all it took was a few bruises to prove his manhood, he could get those with less effort by saying something rude to the school bully. Maybe his mother would be more sympathetic.

She was, but not in the way that Dex had hoped. In her youth, Mrs Dingle had been a star player of women’s basketball. She was past playing now, but she was still an ardent follower of the game that people now called ‘netball’.

‘Have you thought of giving netball a try?’ she asked. ‘It’s a non-contact sport, if that’s what you want, and players have been known to survive being hit by a ball.’

‘Come off it, Mum. That’s a girls’ game.’

‘Says who? It might have been once, but this is 1974. It isn’t called women’s basketball any more. It’s just called netball and I don’t see why a boy can’t play.

‘Are you kidding? Don’t you know what they call the netball courts? “Pleated skirt playgrounds”, that’s what. That’s no place for a self respecting guy.’ Except maybe to enjoy the view, he added to himself.

‘On the contrary, a self respecting young man wouldn’t care what other people thought.’

That might be true. Dex was used to being taunted for his diminutive size. He had learned long ago that the best defence against that sort of thing was to ignore it. Verbal bullies often lost interest in people who didn’t react.

He had to admit that netball had certain advantages over other sports. For one thing, he would get to know lots of girls. Some of them might even be pretty. And the game might not take much effort. Mrs Dingle told him that you don’t have to run with the ball as you do in other games. If you are unlucky enough to catch the ball, you just have to toss it to someone else … preferably someone on your own team. A piece of cake!

‘OK. Yeah. I suppose you’re right,’ said Dex at last. ‘I’ll give netball a go.’

‘Would you like me to talk to a teacher about it?’ Mrs Dingle asked.

‘Hell no …’

‘DEXTER!’

‘Uh. I mean, no, thank you. That wouldn’t be a good idea, Mum. I’ll just bowl along and see what happens.’ Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll tell me to sod off.’

But Mrs Dingle wasn’t satisfied with that. This was her chance to get involved in the game again. She spoke to the netball coach not only to ensure a place for Dex, but also to offer herself as a parent helper. Her offer was gladly accepted. From that moment, Mrs Dingle became one of those denizens of the netball courts known as (shudder) a Netball Mum. Netball Mums could be recognised by the way they prowled the sidelines at each game. In strident voice, they would yell at the players, abuse the ref, and sometimes say rude things to each other.

By now, Dex knew that he had made a mistake. Both of his parents were sports fanatics who expected him to follow in their footsteps. He ought to have written an excuse note himself and kept his parents right out of it. Too late for that now. Mrs Dingle would be there the whole time egging him on and ruining any chance he might have had to goof off.

Inevitably, he became a fitter and better player than he ever imagined. He even began to enjoy the game; but he never aspired to anything beyond a bit of fun on sports days. It therefore came as a shock to find himself named for the school team. The team would represent the school in games against other schools, and that meant playing at the dreaded ‘pleated skirt playground’. That was not on. He would talk to his mum about this. She would get him out of it.

Except she wouldn’t.

‘Mum, I …’

‘Yes, I know. You made the school team. I knew you could do it.’

‘But Mum …’

‘I am so proud of you. We should put in some extra practice …’

MUM!

‘What, dear?

‘The team has to wear the school netball uniform!’

‘Yes, that’s true. You’ll have a bib to show what position you are playing, and a shirt in the school colours and … and …’

‘A skirt. A freaking pleated skirt!’

‘Oh no, I don’t think so.’

‘You can’t know that. There’s never been a boy in the team before. And I don’t want to play for the team anyway.’

‘Of course you want to play for the team. Why do you think we’ve been putting so much time and effort into …?’

‘That was your idea, Mum! I only went to netball because I had to choose something for sports day. I didn’t want to play serious netball; but you kept pushing me to do better and better. Now look where it’s got me!’

This was not what Mrs Dingle expected. ‘Why, you ungrateful …’ She stopped and took a deep breath. ‘Look, I am sure the uniform won’t be a problem. If it will make you happier, I’ll talk to the coach; but I can’t let you pass up an opportunity to play for the school. This is what the game is all about … it’s about being the best. It’s about winning.’

Dex said nothing. You just can’t reason with a Netball Mum.

Coach Millicent Peewit laughed when Mrs Dingle explained the problem. ‘Oh the silly boy,’ she said. ‘He’ll have to wear the uniform from the waist up, of course. Otherwise, plain shorts in a neutral colour will be fine.’

***

And things might have been fine if another Netball Mum hadn’t complained about a boy being given a place on the team. Mr Ragwort, the headmaster, was appalled when he heard of it. ‘A boy playing netball?’ he cried. ‘Great guns, next thing we will have girls wanting to play soccer … or even rugby …. No, this cannot be allowed.' He spoke to Miss Peewit, who reluctantly dropped Dex from the team. Dex could barely conceal his joy.

Mrs Dingle did not conceal her wrath. She stormed into Mr Ragwort’s office and demanded to know what right he had to have her son dropped from the team. Mr Ragwort was nonplussed. He was not accustomed to having his authority questioned. ‘Netball is clearly for girls,’ he said, ‘and for girls only. Miss Peewit should have told your boy that at the outset.’

‘Is that in the school rules?’ demanded Mrs Dingle.

‘Well, no, but …’

In that case you have no right to exclude Dexter from the netball team.’

‘Need I remind you, Mrs Dingle, that I am the headmaster here?’ said Mr Ragwort turning an alarming shade of red. ‘That means I get to make the decisions, and I will not allow a boy to play netball on the school team. Is that clear? Now please get out of my office.’

‘You have not heard the last of this!’ Mrs Dingle said as she left Mr Ragwort’s office with all the grace of a receding tsunami.

Mr Ragwort was not sure that he had won the encounter. He consulted some of the teachers who leant toward traditional values. Miss Minnie Knotweed (known by her pupils as Minnie Rat) came up with a solution. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she said. ‘There is no rule against a boy playing netball; but we do have a strict dress code. All pupils who play on a school team must wear the official uniform … the full official uniform. How do you think Master Dingle will feel about that? Hmm? ’

‘Brilliant!’ said Mr Ragwort. ‘He’ll refuse, of course, and that will keep him out of the team. By Jove, Minnie, I would give you a raise in pay if you weren’t already on the maximum rate for female staff. Please be good enough to remind Miss Peewit of the school’s strict dress code.’

Miss Peewit did not receive the reminder gladly. Nor did she look forward to telling Mrs Dingle. ‘I have good news and bad news,’ she told her.

‘Don’t play word games with me, Millicent. What news?’

‘Well, the school will allow Dexter to play on the school netball team.’

‘That’s to be expected. I knew that foolish man would see sense. He had no right to have Dexter dropped from the team. You mentioned bad news?’

‘Dexter will have to wear the school netball uniform … the full uniform.’

‘You mean … are you telling me they want him to wear a skirt?’

‘No, of course not. They know he won’t do that, but then he won’t be allowed to play on the team. I’m sorry.’

Mrs Dingle was livid. She would push for a change in the dress code, of course, but she knew that she would be up against tradition. In 1974, the pleated skirt was a netball icon and would stay so for years to come. The best she could hope for was special dispensation for Dexter to wear shorts. But come what may, she was determined that Dexter would play for the team.

Word of Mrs Dingle’s dispute with the school reached the local newspaper. A reporter by the name of Miss Stubbs rang Mrs Dingle and asked her if she would grant an interview. Mrs Dingle said yes. She would welcome the publicity.

***

‘I am so pleased to meet you, Miss Stubbs,’ Mrs Dingle said when they met next morning.

‘Please, my name is Sigrid, but you can call me Siggy.’ She listened with interest to what Mrs Dingle had to say. She took lots of notes, but didn’t see much chance of the school changing its stance. ‘So what happens if the school won’t budge?’ she said. ‘Will Dexter play in a skirt?’

‘Of course he will. There is a principle at stake here.’

‘Good for Dexter. This will make a good story. I’ll be sure to come to the game and bring my photographer with me. I wish you luck, Mrs Dingle.’

As the day of the game drew near, Mr Ragwort remained firm in his decision to enforce the dress code. Mrs Dingle was undeterred. She assured Millicent that Dexter wanted to play for the team and would do so in a skirt if necessary. That was a lie, but Mrs Dingle was confident that Dex would do as he was told so it didn’t really matter.

Dex knew the futility of defying his mother. After putting up a token protest, he had little to say on the matter. Mrs Dingle was relieved to have avoided an argument; but Dex baulked when she brought a couple of uniforms home for him to try on.

‘I’m not wearing either of those,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘The skirts are too short.’

‘They are meant to be short.’

After a pause, he said, ‘OK, but I don’t want to try them on. Not just now.’

‘Well you need one of these uniforms for the game tomorrow and I can’t leave you with both. I think this one should fit.’ She handed a uniform to Dex. He took it with all the enthusiasm of one who had just been handed a dead possum.

‘I have games to ref ahead of yours, so I won’t be here to help you change and get you to the court. I will ask one of the other mums to come and …’

‘No! I’ll be OK. Don’t worry about it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah, I don’t like it, but I know exactly what I have to do tomorrow. It’s a no brainer.’

‘Good boy. I knew you would do the right thing.’

***

Next day when the time of the game was drawing close, Dexter had yet to appear. Miss Peewit grew impatient. ‘Should I go and fetch him?’

‘Please wait a bit longer,’ Mrs Dingle said. ‘He isn’t the last one to get here and I know he’ll be along soon.’

So they waited.

Miss Stubbs and her photographer arrived, and they waited.

At last, a figure in an ill fitting netball uniform appeared from the direction of the Dingle residence, and they heaved a collective sigh of relief.

‘This will be Dexter,’ declared Mrs Dingle.

‘Of course it is,’ said Miss Peewit.

‘I’ll be crushed if it isn’t Dexter,’ said Siggy Stubbs.

It wasn’t Dexter.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a new player arrived at soccer practice. He was a weed, but a very fit weed, and he knew at last where he belonged. It would have been futile to have sought consent for going there today.

He would seek forgiveness later.

 

The End

 


© Copyright 2018 Joe Stuart. All rights reserved.

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