Tennis and the Meaning of Love

In the summer of 1974 I played tennis all summer. I played against my friend Bob, who was a much better tennis player than me. Day after day I would lose to Bob. It’s a wonder that he kept playing with me. Perhaps I should give myself credit for going back for more punishment. As the summer shade arced over the court and the days and weeks imperceptibly past, I lost by fewer and fewer games.

Then, on or near Labor Day weekend, when a soft breeze brought the first hint of the coming fall and the poetry of all things come to a good end, Bob and I fought a furious volley for a tie- breaking match point that ended when I dove, full body extended off the ground, and blocked the ball with the top of my racquet. The ball tipped the net and plunked in and out of the court before Bob’s racquet could get there. I won. Bob threw his racquet at the backcourt fence as he screamed an epithet that, if someone nearby had heard, would have restricted our access to the snack bar for the next week.

The satisfaction of that win taught me that hard work and persistence pay off. I tell that story to this day: Playing against someone who is better than you will make you better. No matter how much you lose in the meantime, no matter how frustrating it may be, you will win in the end.

This is the lesson I learned at the Rochester Golf and Country Club during the summer of 1974.

To this day, I hold the maxim to be true: Play against or with people who are better than you, you will get better. Yet I’ve had to add corollaries to that idea. For example: Everyone has to play fair. And: You must have the opportunity to play. And here’s an especially important one: You can’t be denied access to a racquet, a ball, and a place to practice.

Based on my experience, I could say that life can be tough, but if you work hard and are honest, you can achieve anything. No one has to know that my parents moved me to a private high school when it became apparently a public school education was doing me wrong. Instead of explaining who paid for my college education, I proudly say that I washed dishes and delivered pizzas to pay for everything that my tuition, room, and board didn’t cover, such as beer, video games, and road trips.

But the hard, cold, terrible truth is that my experience is not the experience of most people in this country. Most people don’t get the opportunities that I was given and don’t have the means to get those opportunities on their own. Imagine living with a loving parents who work two minimum wage jobs that are barely enough to put a roof over your head and some food in your belly. Imagine arriving at kindergarten to meet kids who somehow already know the alphabet and you don’t. Imagine teachers who ignore you to spend more time with the kids with more “promise.” Imagine getting up every day expecting suspicious looks instead of smiles, hostility instead of help, violent hatred instead of love.

Imagine sitting with friends and family in the quiet, peaceful sanctuary of your church, praying for love, hope, and forgiveness only to look up into the cold hating muzzle of a gun. If it was me, my last thought would probably be, “This isn’t fair.” Had I grown up black, would I have thought, “Oh, here we go again…”?

I built Bearface to be a tool for learning equality, an environment that not only catches the students who are falling through the cracks of our education system, but holds back the bullies who would deny them full access to it. Wellbeing education is about learning to learn. It’s about having the skill and knowledge to succeed in life. It’s also about helping each other, because helping each other helps us to be better at whatever we were put on this planet to do.

Learn Well. Live Well.

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