Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Meme of Past Glory I

1) In elementary school I was always among the last picked for sports teams at recess. After school, I almost never played pickup sports with other kids. Instead I watched Batman on TV in the afternoons, Bewtiched, the Mickey Mouse club. And I read books. When I would go out, I would ride my bike alone and 2) usually did not really want to run into other kids because, perhaps, I was not socialized very well, and also because other kids were pretty much jerks anyway.

In my mid-elementary school years, 3) my main athletic outlet was playing ping ping-pong with my dad before supper. 4) My mom would be teaching piano lessons in the living room, and Dad would come home from work, come down to the basement, put the news on and play ping ping-pong with me. The ping ping-pong table was next to one of the basement’s white paneled walls, and we declared that banking the ball off this wall was legal, as long as the ball then bounced in the opponent’s court.

I’m trying to remember how this ping-pong playing was dovetailed with my own piano practice when I started lessons in fourth grade. Maybe I played ping-pong with Dad from when he got home after 5pm until Mom finished her last piano student around 6pm. Then she would make supper, and I would take my turn on the piano. We were nothing if not a musical household. Before Mom taught, Dad would be the one on the piano when he got home, playing Ragtime.

Ping-pong was fun, piano was not, but 5) I am known, to this day, to dutifully pursue projects ostensibly to deepen myself, even when I lack honest inspiration. I do this, in fact, sometimes when I should be looking for more work. It’s my tragic flaw, the basic thing that keeps me from truly kicking ass.

Our physical education coach at school was also the new soccer coach at Longwood College of which my elementary school (K-7) was a part as a lab school for training new teachers. We called this phys-ed teacher “Mr. P” because we could not pronounce his eastern European family name. He was from the Northeast and gave us the impression that folks from there all talked kind of tough and preceded every sentence with “’Ey!” as in, “’Ey Joey, quit foolin’ around.” My classmates who lived in Farmville, VA, where all this schooling was taking place, said that they could hear his shouts of “’Ey” wafting up Second Avenue in the afternoons from the soccer practice field.

It seems funny to me that this soccer coach who was hired to whip Longwood’s team into shape (and did so to a significant degree, if I recall correctly) and had a no-nonsense attitude about participation and team building in phys-ed class would start a ping-pong tournament. It was such a sideshow, geeky thing. The matches had to be held at lunchtime or after school, apart from normal phys-ed activities. The ping-pong table would be set up wherever it could be, in the lunchroom or school foyer, whichever was not being used at the time. There was never any ping-pong instruction during P.E.; whatever instruction we had needed to have been already gleaned by our own independent experience in life, which meant that some people were just screwed, and others were uncharacteristically lucky.

The tournament was for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders only. I was in sixth. I think I even was not sure that I wanted to enter the tournament. I was not competitive, I had never played Little League or any other sport, never even been to any of these games as a spectator to watch my classmates play. Some of them were home-run heros who had already perfected their Babe Ruth struts at the age of 11. They were arch-enemys when they faced each other on Friday nights from beneath the brims of their “Rotary,” “Jaycees,” “Moose”hats. They chewed Big League Chew and spat. You know, looking back, 6) I think that the biggest reason I never wanted to do Little League was that I didn’t want to sit on a bench with a bunch of sweaty boys who were spitting. I had never had to do this, and somehow, without ever experiencing it firsthand, I knew to avoid it.

All this athletic engagement was happening to other kids outside my realm of experience, often on Friday nights, when I would be at home watching The Incredible Hulk or whatever. So when I did finally enter my first athletic competition, I was very surprised at the low level of actual competition.

Mr. P was letting folks serve by bouncing the ball first, then tapping it over the net. I could top-spin these suckers back to their court and off to Venus. But I was fairly sensitive for a kid, and in my recollection, I didn’t abuse these opponents too badly.

There was this one serious dickhead “K” in my class who was also in the tournament. He would hit you when the teacher wasn’t looking, and at lunch he would take your yogurt from you. In earlier grades, like first through second grade, he had to wear a cast and brace on a leg that was healing from a nasty break. That took at least a year to heal, but like a dog adapting to loping on three legs, he learned to run with that one leg held rigid in its cast. He would lift it from the hip, heave it forward, slap it rattling to the ground, then sort of jump forward on his good leg. He was about as fast as anyone. He was also known to kick kids with that brace. By sixth grade he had been long healed from that, and he was excellent at all sports, so he was probably really good at ping-pong. I have no memory of playing against him though, so I expect he was beaten in some other bracket by someone else.

The person who beat him was probably severnth grader “T,” whom I played later in a semi-final match one Friday after school. By then the ping-pong tournament had become a big deal. Some players were becoming celebrities in their circles of friends, but I don’t recall much attention being paid to me around the time of that match. In general, 7) I was neither consistently an outsider or insider. For a period of a few days, I could be the object of the cool kids’ teasing; then, other times, I could be on the fringes of the “in” crowd, but then I usually kept my mouth shut, fearing that I would say something that would reveal my quirky outsider interests in sci-fi, books, fantasies.

This match was held in the lunch room after school on a Friday, and maybe 20 or so kids, teachers, a few parents were there to watch. They were mostly, I think, from “T’s” seventh grade class. Some of them even hung or sat in the colorful metal grillwork dividing the lunch room from the hallway bordering it. Normally teachers would immediately yell at anyone doing this, but in my recollection, nobody yelled that afternoon.

I don’t think I realized how good a player “T” was until we had gotten into the match a ways. He was damn good. He was the first opponent to deliberately place the ball certain places to confuse me, and to put spins on it. Early in the match I gave up trying to spin the balls back at him, because his spins combined with my spins were like mixing drugs and alcohol, and nothing good came of it. I ended up just trying to hold on, just return the damn ball, just keep it in play. That was all I could do. Man there were some long volleys too. And it never really occurred to me that I would lose. I mean, he was bigger than me, a seventh grader, probably a better ping-pong player when you get down to it; and he was someone I had heard the girls in my carpool from home to school, “K” and “E,” talking about in the hushed, awestruck tones they were learning about from reading Tiger Beat (remember, I was still watching Batman -- I was certainly not the subject of such conversation). But I had beaten the crap out of everyone that came before me and it just never occurred to me that I could walk away from a match having not won. It’s not that I had to muster all my will, or shut out distractions, or assume the Eye of the Tiger. It was just that I was sweating more, and my ass was against a wall, but that wall was blocking me from losing.

I recall actually running back from the table to catch up to balls going past me. Once I really did dive for a ball and roll on the tile floor, but I certainly lost that point. And in my memory, nobody on the sidelines was saying much -- not much cheering or clapping for either of us. It never occurred to me that they were mostly on “T’s” side, but I think they were. He probably really was expected to win.

My teacher from the previous year, Mrs. “B,” said to my Dad later that “T” just couldn’t get anything past me. I won, and everyone was pretty quiet about it, and our parents drove us home. I think maybe it was while going home that it first occurred to me that, “Jesus, that was a ball buster,” though I hardly had such descriptive language at my disposal at the time.

The final was to to be a few school days later, maybe middle of the next week. I was really uptight about it. The other finalist was “Th,” a fifth grader, a very short guy for his age who had an extremely sunny personality, whom everyone liked, who I don’t think was really teased much at all despite his shortness.

After “T”had been such a hard match, I figured it stood to reason that “Th” would be harder, so I made my Dad practice with me far more than he wanted to. He said, “Okay, but you’ll have to do the same for Sidletz.” 8) “Sidletz” (spelling?) was his word for the male child he presumed I would have someday. (Dad came from middle-income Cleveland, and whenever he needed a name for a generic person, someone I might call “Joe Six-Pack,” his name for such a person came out sounding German or Eastern European, like “Frankie Schnitzelhauser.”) I think that prerequisite to this presumption was another presumption, which was that I would date more as a young adult. Well, all I can say to Dad is, we learn to relate on emotional levels by following our parents’ example.

The final was to be held during the school day, with the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades taking their recess periods at the same time so they could all watch. The day started pretty normally, with us sixth graders coming in to our colorful room, hanging out among our desks before class was to start, taking our seats at the bell. The teacher was trying to start class when “J,” who tended to blut things out without forewarning, said, “Hey, today’s the championship!”

This had been the only thing on my mind that day. 9) Like so many things things that preoccupied me then and now, it was weighing heavily in my chest, and I had kept quiet about it. Bearing that emotional burden, I was suddenly also in the unusual position of having all eyes on me. And they were chanting my three letter, one syllable name like Eastern Bloc sports fans cheering a figure skater. The teacher motioned for them to stop, then quickly gave up and smiled and let it go on for maybe 30 seconds. And then our class finally calmed down, and in the relative quiet, we could hear the fifth graders through the wall chanting “Th’s” name.

The clowns in our class would not be outdone. “Let’s pick him up,” they said, and came at me, and I was sort of in shock, maybe a milder version of how I was 20 years later when 10) I was held up at gunpoint.

My chair was lifted with me in it. I knew this would be awkward, and an instant later, the mob realized this as well and separated me from the chair. I kind of wiggled to get away, and I was probably smiling by now. “W,” a huge guy who had been held back a grade, came up behind me and lifted me, and others joined him to carry me out into the hallway. Fifth graders heard the commotion, saw us, and went back to their room to carry “Th” as well. I was carried maybe only 50 feet or so down the hall, then set down, and we all went back to class and took our seats, flushed, as if coming back from recess.

“What would we do if [Elrond] were up against ‘K,’” one of the athletic boys said. He was referring to the dick who had once had the broken leg. “K” was slouched in his seat though, doing something in his lap, maybe playing one of those pocket video games. He looked up, looked back at the game. He had been out of the tournament for a while and had no interest in it.

I knew what they would have done if it were me against “K” in the finals. The louder, athletic kids would have favored him, and some quieter ones would have supported me. Our class would have been divided. Aware of this sectarian split, there would not have been much pre-game cheering for either of us, but the athletic boys would have slapped Hi-Fives with “K” behind the divider leading to the sink and coat closet area, and I might have come around the corner to find them leaning against the counter there. I would have stopped, sensing I was not welcome, and they would have pushed past me, punching my shoulder as they went by, not punching very hard, but enough to possibly 11) make me cry depending on my emotional makeup of the moment.

From the first volley, I found “Th” to be no match for me. I could not believe he had made it to the finals. As expression of my disbelief, I smashed a few of his lousy serves into the corners of his court, then restrained myself to winning the rest of the points without fanfare.

Afterwards, back in class, “E” the Tiger Beat reader, who happened to have a seat next to me, something I found rather thrilling even that year, was kind of cold toward me for a while. Then she said, “Gah, you didn’t have to kill him. You could have let him get a few points.”

I had some sinister reaction I could not voice, but now, in adulthood, I can. It is, “’K’ got to kick kids with his leg brace and take our yogurt from us. ‘J’ gets to disrupt class whenever he wants. Other ‘J’ gets to come into the room on Monday morning and hold his hands in the air, making peace signs, because of his home runs he hit the previous Friday. ‘T’ gets the girls talking about him in hushed tones. But I don’t get to kick someone’s ass in ping-pong? Well tough shit. I kicked it. But don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll go back to being mostly inconsequential now. I won’t be any more trouble to your sense of justice."

1 comment:

Jessica T. said...

Interesting. Brave kid. Nice moment of glory.