Playing Ball: In a Dark Time

Thursday, July 15, 2010 /by

Tennis-ball-rebound-1a I'm off on Friday, but here, for the weekend, is a slightly fictionalized story from my tennis past.

In the spring of my junior year of college, I took an English class that had something to do with the Renaissance. I can’t remember the title of the course, and most of the reading we did also escapes me. I know there were discussions of Don Quixote and Petrarch, but beyond that what I recall most was sitting with five or six other students once a week for three hours, all of us huddled around a small table, in a bare-walled room inside the campus’s rickety Humanities building. The school I went to was liberal arts and Quaker, so no matter how much tuition it charged, the style was ascetic, and comfort wasn’t a priority. The one person in the room whom I do remember vividly, though, was our professor, a gray-haired woman of 60 or so.

She had a nervous, distracted air. She talked slowly, fluttered her hands, stammered a little, and looked down at the table as she spoke. Her customary red sweater, which was always wrapped around a black collared shirt, had a layer of fuzz on it that can only be described as academic. Maybe I noticed her discomfort because of my own nerves; I hated the thought of talking in front of other people, even four or five other people, and I spent most of my time staring at the table in front of me as well. But it didn’t seem to be anxiety, exactly, that bothered her. It seemed to be something deeper and harder to identify, something fundamental.

My own nerves weren’t helped by the fact that I was hopelessly unprepared for most of the classes. I lugged Don Quixote and Petrarch and whatever other ancient and seemingly irrelevant European tomes—Rabelais’ name is coming back to me as I write this—we’d been assigned to the library. I even sequestered myself on the top floor, in a distant, spookily silent set of carrels. It didn’t work. It would take only a couple of pages for my mind to begin wandering, and for the library’s many other possibilities to begin calling me. Soon I was hunting through the aisles and stacks for writers that I did like at the time—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, none of whom I was actually reading for a course. Each week I returned to class, and to the small table and my fellow students, having barely cracked the book we were discussing. I’d spend the entire time avoiding all eye contact, which is an immensely awkward thing to do for three hours in a room with just five other people.

My professor was a tennis fan. That spring I would look up on a blustery afternoon at practice, or during a match, and see her and the head of the English department, a short, high-strung gray eminence, in the bleachers above the courts. One day after class, fidgeting with her books as we walked into the hall, she mentioned that she could spend hours watching the sport, live or on TV. “It’s soothing,” she said. She liked the new kid, Sampras. I said I liked Agassi, but that I was using Sampras' racquet. We both said we liked Steffi Graf, who wasn’t far removed from her Golden Slam. It was more words than I’d uttered in four weeks of classes.

One evening that semester, up again on the library’s fourth floor, I pulled down a biography of Roethke. I’d been introduced to his poetry by my 12th grade English teacher three years before. In his mid-30s, a frustrated poet with a receding hairline, beady eyes, and a fleshy face, Mr. Grimes (as I’ll call him) had been as irascible as any English teacher is supposed to be. He’d started the year by intimidating us—“cutting our heads off and watching them fall into our laps,” was how he put it. In the first week, he’d asked me to get up and read a soliloquy from Sophocles. I stood and mumbled in a monotone for a few minutes before I was interrupted by what I thought were the sounds of someone weeping in the back of the room. It was Grimes, holding a handkerchief, pretending to be crying over my stumbling recitation. “It’s just so moving!” he cried out sarcastically as my classmates’ laughter filled up my ears. A few days later, a pretty girl, Maria, was slouching in her chair in the front row, her legs stretched in front of the desk. “Well, that’s a very provocative position!” Grimes bellowed in her face. She sat up ramrod straight. We were the only two students that he gave A’s to that semester. Later that year, as I was writing an absurd farewell note in Maria's yearbook, I happened to flip to the page with Grimes's photo. She's written "I LOVE YOU!" in huge capital letters across his fat face. Was that what girls liked? Bellowing intimidation? I didn't ask her about it.

Near the end of the year, once he’d covered Chaucer and Hamlet and all the proper high school English books we needed to cover, Grimes had rearranged our desks into a circle. He sat up on one of them, his legs dangling, and began to talk about what he really liked, modern poetry. Lowell, Plath, Stevens, ee cummings, Ashbery, Crane, Sexton. The poems were hard to penetrate; they seemed determined to ward the reader off. I had trouble coming up with much to say about them on the spot, and never really added much to the discussion. But it was a thrilling and eye-opening the experience nonetheless. Slowly getting to the root of a poem like Lowell’s “Rounds, Rounds” (I don't think that's the actual title) felt like discovering something at the root of your own brain that you’d never known was there. 

Roethke had been a favorite of Grimes’. He took special pleasure in pointing out the sexual metaphors in his nature imagery. To an adolescent mind, Roethke had a lot to offer. Not only was he a poet, which meant he had a spiritual access to life that the vast majority of us lacked, but he also an alcoholic and a chronic depressive, both of which were undeniably cool.

Now, reading Roethke’s biography on the floor of my college library, I learned that those things might not have been so cool, at least to him. He'd been a hard drinker, but his instability was a little scarier than I'd realized. In the middle of teaching a class, he might open the window, climb out on the ledge, and make lunatic faces at the freaked-out kids inside. I also found out he’d been the tennis coach at Penn State, a school 50 miles from where I grew up.

That night, after having read absolutely nothing for my class , I got back to my dorm room late. Unable to sleep, I fished out a dog-eared Norton poetry anthology from high school, and read the half-dozen Roethke poems that were included. The rhythm of one, “In a Dark Time,” was immediately familiar:


In a dark time, the eye begins to see,

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood—


What’s madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!

I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall


Did I feel this way sometimes? College wasn’t easy, and I was certainly drifting in this class, a class I needed for my major. But depression wasn’t in the cards for me, which was somehow disappointing. It was a little like Woody Allen’s mock lament about never being able to commit suicide because he was “too middle class.” Still, I understood the rhythm of this poem, and vaguely linked it with my English professor.

I handed in my first paper for her class a full week late. I’d thought this wouldn’t be a big deal, but she looked hurt and angry. She looked down and shook her head as I handed it to her. I don’t know what I thought she would do, but I was stunned by her reaction. My failure came home to me. At the end of class the following week, she handed it back to me with an oversize C in red ink at the top. Short of not doing the assignment at all, this was pretty much lowest grade that it was possible to get.

A dark time, a dark moment, but something in the reading for her class finally connected. It was one of Petrarch’s over-the-top, desperate love poems, and it clicked with me as a dead ringer for the thoughts and atmosphere of the Roethke poem—this was the rhythm I'd immediately recognized. Petrarch’s verses were Renaissance and lyrical, and his dark moment was tied to a woman. Roethke’s desperation was 20th century, hard, and existential. No woman was needed to send him to the ledge, to pin him to a sweating wall.

I took the two poems to my professor’s tiny office, with the idea of comparing the two of them in my final paper. It was my last hope in the class. When I got there, she was scrunched at her desk between towering piles of books and papers, humming to herself as she read an article. She looked a little shocked to see me, the underachieving jock. I handed her the beat-up Norton anthology and showed her the Roethke poem. She read it and began to shake her head. It wasn’t a shake of dismay this time, but appreciation. When she finished, she dropped the book in her lap, leaned back, and began nodding quickly. “It’s good, very good, you’re right.” She gave me the go-ahead to write the paper. I left right away. There was something intimidating about her, something too painfully grown-up and and heavy for me to face as a 20-year-old. 

I worked obsessively on the paper. The time in the library was suddenly a pleasure, the productivity a refuge from the feeling of academic failure that had been building that semester. I spent hours in the silent carrels on the top floor, writing it by hand, in pencil, rewriting, the graphite caked onto the far edge of my left hand. When I handed it in, I got the barest of smiles from my professor. She looked more distracted, less happy, than ever.

That year the NCAA Division III tennis championships were held at our school. We won the team event, though I didn’t spot anyone from the English department at the matches. The next week, my partner and I were in the individual doubles tournament, and in the middle of one of our matches, I looked up to see four English profs, including mine and the chair of the department, in the bleachers. The match went to three sets, and I began to serve out of my mind in the third. I couldn’t miss the wide one in the deuce court. In these moments, in these meaningful matches, your mind doesn’t wander a whole lot; time seems compressed, to be running a little too fast, as if you can feel all the practice you’ve done beforehand, as well as all the second-guessing you’ll do for days after, pressing together and making this moment, the one that counts, incredibly urgent—you can't quite believe it's happening right now. Still, after hitting an ace and walking to the other side of the court, I wondered for a second if those English professors, who must have known I was no star of their department, were thinking, “So that’s how he got in here. It must have been his serve.”

We lost anyway. We got close, but we couldn’t finish it. Which was especially appalling, considering that one of the guys we were playing was a first-class a—hole who my partner and I detested. When it was over, I walked to the back of the court, smashed my Pro Staff on the asphalt, and threw it over the fence. There was a frightening moment, as it hurtled end over end though the air, when it looked like it might land on the windshield of an approaching car. I covered my head, but it missed by a couple of feet. I looked up to see the English department collectively staring at the racquet as it bounced into the bushes across the street.

There was one seminar left in our class. It was scheduled to be held at our professor’s house, a few blocks from campus. The other students and I met up and walked together. When we got there, the place was empty, so we sat in a circle in the chairs in her living room. After 15 minutes, the chair of the department drove up and walked in the front door. He said that our professor wouldn’t be here today, that we wouldn’t see her again this year, and that we would get our final grades back from her by mail. That was it, that’s all he said. I never found out what happened.

A month or so later I was back at my parents place, lying on the couch, reading. It might have been something from the Renaissance class; I could always concentrate on books better when they hadn’t been assigned. An envelope from my college arrived through the mail slot. Inside were my grades for the semester. My eyes flicked down the list: B-, B-, C+. Total mediocrity, as expected. The last grade was from my English class. It was the only A+ I ever got.


Have a good weekend.

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