NPR contributor Elissa Ely comments on watching her daughter's volleyball pratice. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

NPR contributor Elissa Ely comments on watching her daughter’s volleyball pratice. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

You might wonder why a bunch of parents are watching their high school daughters practice team volleyball. We’re not here to watch a game, because it isn’t game time. We’re not here to watch adorable toddlers in their first sport, learning which way to run towards the goal—because those adorable years ended long ago.

We stand against the wall, observing lunges and abdominal exercises and drills that are frankly not that interesting. Sometimes a parent makes a remark to whoever might be standing nearby. But it’s not like the lawn chair societies of middle school soccer and softball. Players come from all over the state, and after this season, their parents will never meet again.

These are departing years, where they manage social worlds so complicated they’re out of a feudal Japanese court.

You can’t tell the girls apart from behind. In their hip-length ponytails and team uniforms, they’re vivaciously identical. Only the details differ. I have to squint a couple of times to recognize mine, even though I gave birth to her.

Volleyball practice is straightforward, but their lives aren’t. Their lives are full of twists and dents they don’t share anymore. These are departing years, where they manage social worlds so complicated they’re out of a feudal Japanese court, and underneath that, they manage goodbyes we can’t help with, because they’re goodbyes to us.

Yet here they are, tipping and serving and passing and setting, putting their will into abdominal strengthening and teamwork. Only volleyball exists. The gym is filled with simple shouts and the ball is going cheerfully over the net.

This is my hypothesis: parents are here, instead of home reading something scholarly (or at the gym ourselves), because we’ve come to watch time stop. It’s a brief and impossible ambition. We’re watching ponytails that belong to girls we know but really don’t know anymore. For an hour or two, once or twice a week, our complicated, departing daughters are simple again.