ROTTERDAM — A wise woman once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
A high school cross country coach here often tells his kids, “Focus on the things you can control,” a good idea under any circumstances, but especially useful in the midst of a global pandemic that wipes out your whole season.
This is one thing that a high school senior can (and will) control: her wardrobe.
And her clothing choices can symbolize what she cares about and wants to fight for. So on Thursday, Mohonasen cross country star Kate Sherman pulled on her favorite socks, the ones with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s familiar face in the big black-framed eyeglasses and her judge’s robe stitched into the sides, and “RBG” underneath.
It was one of Sherman’s in-school days, so she not only wore the socks to class, but she still had them on for practice, homage to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, who died at the age of 87 the previous Friday.
More important than an act of tribute, though, the socks represent a promise. It may be easy for the older generation (raises hand, guilty as charged) to take a reductive view of teenagers’ interests (posting on TikTok and that’s it, amirite?). But in this case, Sherman offers a breath of fresh air from behind a face mask, a teen who could easily rest on her considerable running laurels but instead also brings a social conscience, optimism for the future and a voice to express it.
“From when RBG started her journey, things have gotten better, but we still have a long way to go before we have perfectly equal rights for everyone,” she said. “But I definitely feel like it’s going to get better even still.
“I admire just how strong she was despite all the obstacles she faced. She never gave up, even when she couldn’t find work after she graduated. She never stopped trying to become a lawyer, which was her dream to fight for equal rights.”
That’s a pursuit that appears on the horizon for Sherman, certainly the fight for equal rights part, whether she actually chooses a career in law or not.
While coached by her father, Bill, Kate, who ranks in the top 10 in her class academically, became Mohonasen’s first-ever Section II cross country champion last season, and she went on to finish seventh at the Class B state meet.
Last Thursday, on a spectacular sunny early-fall day, she and her teammates worked out on the high school track for a season that won’t happen until (shudder) … March. The Colonial Council decided to postpone because of COVID-19 risks and limitations.
The Sherman household got the bad news about the season on Sept. 18, and while sorting out what to do next around the dinner table, Kate’s phone pinged a Twitter notification that Ginsburg had died.
“I’m an emotional person, and my heart breaks for her,” said Bill Sherman, tearing up for a moment. “We were told we had the go-ahead. I had been planning all summer — and she sees that every day — and it was really unexpected. So we’re sitting there processing it, it was a late dinner and she looks at her phone and just started crying. And my wife was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘RBG died.’ We just sat there for several seconds in silence.
“You’re like, ‘What more?’ And she said, ‘This is the worst day ever.’ Then she went to mom and got a good, long hug. Then we spent the rest of the night watching the news and the stories about RBG’s life. We had to keep switching when they started talking about the political stuff, because she said, ‘Can’t they just focus on the good part of her life?’ It’s heart-breaking.”
“She’s been a really big role model and inspiration to me, especially with everything that’s happening right now with the world,” Kate Sherman said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media about how she was such an amazing woman and person, but it’s crazy to think that one woman had such an impact that her passing has struck a chord with everyone.”
Ginsburg’s role model status crystallized for Sherman when she saw the movie “On the Basis of Sex” with her mom and two sisters in 2018.
She particularly enjoyed the dinner scene in which Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, feistily responds to Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold’s request, “Let us go around the table, and each of you ladies report who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.”
“And she made a joke about it and said that she was there to be able to make better conversation with her husband. Which wasn’t true, but she was sort of throwing it back in his face,” Sherman said, with a twinkle in her eyes.
Distance running often is a solitary pursuit, and it’s probably no coincidence that Sherman’s experience with sexism and bullying has occurred when she’s out on the roads by herself.
Funny how that works.
“There’s definitely points, especially as a runner,” she said. “If I run by myself, there have been times when people are yelling at me or I’ll get catcalled. It only happens when I’m alone. But the fact that it happens at all shows that, although we’ve come a long way, there are still people who do stuff like that.”
“My wife and I were talking, we can’t believe how focused she’s been on current events,” Bill Sherman said. “Even when she was younger. She has very strong opinions, and she vocalizes them. She’s our third, and there’s a saying, ‘The third will be heard.’ And she’s heard.
“The feedback we hear from her teachers is she has a lot to say. And she backs it up. A lot of it comes from social media. She’s always been interested in current affairs, politics. But I would say this past year has heightened it quite a bit. And I would say since the 2016 election, she’s been more focused on the social unrest. And this past summer, especially.”
In the disjointed world of the pandemic, one platform for Kate Sherman to express her views and set an example on women’s rights and equal rights for all is as a captain on the cross country team, “to show them that it’s not OK if people treat you differently,” she said.
Her mom suggested that the moment of Ginsburg’s death will serve as a where-were-you-when benchmark for her daughter, like 9-11 or the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan was for those of us old enough to have witnessed those events.
Her father said Kate, who picked up the RBG socks in Maine during a family vacation this summer, is considering studying political science and the law in college.
“It’s real life that she’s experiencing, and she’s like, ‘Wait, that’s not right,'” Bill Sherman said. “And for her, I think it’s also been sort of an awakening that she’s lived a pretty privileged life. So we’re really proud of her that she tries to understand what others are experiencing, and it’s not what she’s experiencing.”
“There should be more people who we can look up to like that. And there are,” Kate Sherman said. “There are strong women who can be strong role models for young girls.”
There’s talking the talk, and walking the walk.
Kate Sherman’s fast feet will be running the run, to the extent that this non-season will allow.
I’m looking forward to seeing where they — and RBG — take her.