I suck at golf. When I hit the ball at the driving range, it might fly straight up and land ten feet away, or hook meanly to the left. Sometimes it’s a grass cutter, burning along just off the ground. Every now and then I whack the thing just right and it feels like the heavens have parted. The little orb describes a beautiful arc lit by a shaft of heavenly light.
I haven’t been at the sport long-- just took it up this summer. Nor am I “avid.” Having two young boys pretty much prevents me from being avid at anything, except falling asleep by nine every night. “Piqued” might be a better word for the way I feel about golf right now.
The high school jock in me relishes the challenge of a new sport, while at the same time, the dad I’ve become is okay with my utter lack of skill. It takes the pressure off when par is a goal rather than an expectation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason why I like golf is because I suck at it.
For one thing, there’s nothing but upside. Every time I go out, infrequently as that may be, I get better. A neighbor I ran into at the block party told me to stand with my feet in a “v” instead of parallel like a batter up to plate. One little tip, and the ball started to go straighter. Second, I’m a beginner again. Which makes me a better teacher.
This week, I had tenth graders start writing groups. Some had done it before, but most don’t get it. They’re programmed to correct grammar mistakes and say, “Good job,” even if they don’t mean it. They need to learn how to help each other’s writing without hurting each other’s feelings, but right now they’re scared to do one or the other. Much less both.
I want my writing groups to soar, like they did for me and my colleagues in the summer institute. But I have to remind myself that they might not, at first. A bunch of teachers who love their job enough to devote a summer to reading and writing about it are going to generate a different dynamic than kids wondering when this touchy-feely stuff is going to stop and the red pen will come out. Even though some of these kids are brilliant and all are smart, they’re beginners at this.
Like I am at golf, but not much else. Because, let’s face it, there comes a point in life when we know what we’re good at. And that tends to be what we stick with. We get rewarded, become accomplished. A lot of TJ kids are at this point already in life, maybe prematurely. They’re good at school, of course, and also playing the piano, programming a computer, or whatever. Whatever it is... is safe.
Conversely, we learn what not to do. “I can’t draw,” a lot of people decide, or, “Snowboarding isn’t for me.” While I can see the wisdom in not taking up a sport in which you fall on you hip over and over, where’s the danger in art? Getting a paper cut? A paintbrush in the eye?
No, the danger isn’t physical. It’s failure, or the fear of it. That’s what keeps us from trying new things. Rediscovering risk-- even if it’s only on the golf course-- puts me in touch with what some of my students, many of whom are not accomplished writers, might feel in the writing circle.
There’s a nine-hole golf course near TJ that I’m going to try to get to after school one day. I’ll leave a stack of ungraded papers in my briefcase in the car. Maybe I’ll make par on one hole. And maybe one of those essays, when I do get around to reading it, will surprise me with language that’s fresh and not scared of the red pen. Or maybe not, this time out. Let’s take a swing and see.