When former teacher Clint Smith isn’t giving acclaimed TED Talks, winning national poetry slams, or tweeting about Women’s World Cup soccer in an all-caps fervor, he’s busy researching inequality and incarceration in pursuit of his doctorate at Harvard. Smith, a frequent featured speaker at EF Global Leadership Summits, is also a diehard Arsenal fan who’s written about the sport for The New Yorker. Below, he talks us through his thoughts on the cultural significance of soccer.
We had been through this before. We had placed wooden planks over our windows. We had filled heavy sandbags and placed them around the house. We had covered our most precious items in trash bags and moved them to our attic, where they were less likely to be touched by any water that made it inside. None of this was new. This is something we did every other year of my childhood—those later summers or early autumns when hurricanes paraded through the Gulf of Mexico and teased our fragile coastline.
I grew up in New Orleans, where hurricane preparations felt as common as elementary school fire drills. We would pack a few bags, drive to Houston, Texas, and stay with relatives for a few days before returning home. I would bring a few clothes, whichever handheld video game I was most attached to at that moment, and my soccer ball. Always my soccer ball.
Typically, and thankfully, the damage would be minimal, and we would come back to our house, pick up debris and tree branches that had been scattered around the lawn, and go on living just as we had before. But in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, things no longer operated like a fire drill. We left, but we did not come back. The home I grew up in, the place that had been the centerpiece of my life, had been subsumed by over eight feet of water. It was gone.
We were fortunate to find a top school in Houston that generously offered us scholarships to complete the year. It was a private international school, with students from over seventy countries and a dozen languages being spoken as you walked through the hallway. It was a place with a profoundly different social and cultural milieu than the public school I attended in New Orleans.
I was uncertain, and nervous, about the nature of this transition. No longer was I going to complete my senior year of high school with the friendships I had been developing throughout my entire life. I was going into a space that felt worlds away from what I was accustomed to. I was granted the good fortune, however, to enter this new school environment at the beginning of the soccer season. And at an international school, the soccer team was the most important team around.
I had played soccer my entire life, and at the most competitive levels. I had dreams of becoming a professional, making a living from playing the game I loved in one of the top leagues in Europe. I had long harbored dreams of the places this game would take me, but I could have never anticipated that it would serve as the cornerstone of my transition into a new school after mine had been submerged, and to a new life after that.
The day I stepped foot into my new school, soccer gave me a team and a group of friends who made the transition to this unfamiliar, unpredictable period of my life less precarious. I did not need to speak the same language as my teammate to pass them the ball. I did not need to share the same nationality as my teammate in order to celebrate a goal with them. I did not need to come from the same socioeconomic background as my teammate to share a common goal of winning a state championship. I made some of my closest friends on that team. And I remain close to them today.
That was not the only time soccer served as a grounding and unifying force for me in moments of cultural difference. When I studied abroad in Senegal in college, it was my ability to play the game that broke the ice and established my initial connections with people in the village where I was living. When I moved to South Africa to do public health work around HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, it was a game of pickup that helped lower tensions and anxiety around discussions of a topic that often remains taboo. When I was a high school English teacher in Maryland, in a community where many of my students were undocumented immigrants, it was bonding over the latest Real Madrid or Manchester United game that helped my students become more invested in both me and my class. When I became a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Swaziland to conduct poetry workshops at schools across the country, it was kicking the ball about in the schoolyard before the workshop began that helped get the students to trust me enough to share things they might not have shared before.
Soccer has given me so much and continues to do so. It gave me a sense of home when I was at such a distance from everything that felt familiar. It gave me the infrastructure to rebuild my life after so much of it had been washed away. It has supplemented my work as a writer and an educator, creating a more inclusive and trusting environment for students to bring all of themselves to the classroom.
This game gave me the cultural dexterity to immerse myself in new communities, both in the U.S. and across the ocean, where immersion might have otherwise proven difficult. And while I may not have achieved my dreams of becoming a professional player, these experiences have impacted my life in ways far greater than I could have ever anticipated.
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