Sunday, November 28, 2010

Elbows: A Meditation

Mr. President, I feel your pain. I've seen pictures of you on the news, holding your swollen lip like a piece of sour candy. The image will undoubtedly be more fodder for the tragic narrative they have been waiting to apply to your presidency. After the mid-term elections, it's obvious that you're not perfect like you tried to make us believe. You aren't strong enough. You're not tough enough. You can be beaten. In Jim Demint's words, you can be "broken". In your own words, you can be "shallacked".

Note to Pres. NeO: Find another word to describe defeats. Despite its etymology, 
"shellack" sounds like something a slave master does to a slave.  *No KuntaKente*
Mr. President, I knew this day would come. Ever since they said that you were not only a regular hooper, but in fact a baller. Ever since the summer of '08 when I saw you sink the most clutch three pointer in the history of politics during a visit to troops in Kuwait.

Did McCain ever really have a chance?

Ever since I saw you out-shoot the University of Connecticut Huskies women's basketball team in the White House backyard during their post-national championship visit. The same team that has won 80 straight basketball games (and counting). I knew this day would come.

Ever since I saw you dismantle former all-American Clark Kellog during a "friendly" game of POTUS, I knew this day would come.

I guarantee you Clark missed a couple of those shots on purpose, 
but only because he didn't know he was going to lose. You can't give me that kind of room. Indeed.

The game, and its adherents, often leave marks that can't be concealed. I knew the day would come when evidence of your hoop life would be writ large across your flesh for all to see. On this day the people you are charged to lead would read these marks and create new meanings, meanings that you couldn't control. Meanings that speak to your frailty (humanity?). I knew this because whether you're President of the United States or a high school English teacher, if you get bruised up, you about to get talked about.

Mr. Shakur got socked in the eye, y'all! Dang, Mr. Shakur, you got lit up! I told Mr. Shakur he better have my money! Why they have to hit you all in the eye like that, Mr. Shakur? It was like, bink! [mimic slow-motion punch to eye,then punch-drunk-stagger around classroom]

I have heard it all.

But basketball is a passport for me. My face and complexion always raise more questions than they answer when people see me. I'm hard to place. I have to spend more time explaining myself, where I came from, why I'm here. The truth of my story is too complicated for people to grasp in a short time, so seeing me play basketball offers a Cliff Notes version of my identity.

My students have often had a similarly difficult time placing me, and that's why I try to let them know who I am by getting on the court. As soon as I start working somewhere, whether it's Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Chicago, I play. Basketball is part of my teaching philosophy. 

It's amazing how much extra effort you can get from a student in the classroom if you can take them to the hole and finish with your left. The court gives your students insight into who you are as a person. My students learn that my jump shot is often shaky, that the hardest shots for me are the easiest, and that I have a tendency to curse myself when I'm frustrated. But they also learn that I don't neglect my defensive responsibilities, I'm not afraid of contact, and I'm more likely to praise a teammate than criticize one.  

When I get the opportunity to play students, I try to show that my fetish for hard work is not limited to the classroom. That I'm not just a teacher that believes in them because I don't have anything else to believe in. That I can operate on multiple levels. That I will block your shot if it's weak.


More than anything it allows for a coaching relationship that's different than the classroom. When you play basketball with students, you literally have to work together to score points. In a real way it makes all of the success and challenges communal. The things I encourage my students to do on the court are the same things I ask them to do in the classroom: Stay focused. Keep your eyes open for your teammates. Don't be afraid to shoot. Keep hustling!

But as you demonstrate your ability to operate in multiple realms, you also are subject to the norms of those realms. On the court the teacher can be physically challenged without consequence. Sometimes these challenges result in injuries for said teacher.

In Baltimore, during an after school game, I got an inadvertent headbutt from a student. This caused a nasty cut above the eye brow, that required a few stitches. That wouldn't have been terrible if this hadn't been the same week I met the parents of my then girlfriend (future Mrs. Knowitall!) for the first time. Awkward, to say the least.

About a month later, a student pushed me in the back during a layup. I caught my feet, but not before I turned and slammed the back of my hand into a brick wall. I finished the game, but my hand swelled up like a balloon. This was in the salad days of my barely existent Americorps medical benefits, so under the wise advice of my roommates (If you can move it, it can't be broke!) I didn't seek immediate medical treatment.

Misstra Knowitall stupidity quiz #4080

After I shattered my hand, I:

A. Attempted to bind my wounded ring finger to my middle finger for stability.
B. Created a makeshift splint out of a popsicle stick and some medical tape.
C. Played basketball again, a couple times, despite the sharp pain in my still swollen hand.
D. All of the above.

If you chose D then you obviously know how dumb I can be about basketball injuries. By the time I went to the doctor, they told me that my hand had already healed--crookedly, of course. I'm lucky that my backroom orthopdeiatrics didn't leave me with a hook hand. However, the rest of my born days my ring finger will tuck shyly beneath its sturdier brother.

I read a brilliant essay by the poet Ross Gay where he talked about the "visionary" elbow of a student taking out his teeth during a basketball drill. Ross considered the elbow not as an instrument of revenge or turpitude, but as an expressor of primal possibility. The elbow as teller of survival stories. The elbow as speaker of those magical words: here's how my story goes.

I don't drive through a lane of sharp-boned, loose-limbed children like I used to. I have to admit a sort of perverse pride in being able to endure injury. Even if you've never read Don Sabo's classic essay, Patriarchy, Pigskin, and Pain, you realize that somebody who continues to play pickup basketball with a broken hand has issues. As I've gotten older, I have realized that I don't need to shatter bones to help children. I've learned to be a better teacher in the classroom so I don't have so much to prove on the court.

I have also realized I have told more of my story on the court than I have story left to tell. My knees sing sermons as they bend, and the day when my story is more appropriately told outside the confines of the court's white lines, rather than within them, grows closer by the day. But that's okay. Now I'm more focused on helping the young people I teach tell their own stories. Teach the benefits of being active, rather than passive, participants in their own destinies.

The President finds himself in a similar position. In his autobiography he talked about the ways that basketball helped shape not only his identity, but the way that people perceived him. As petty as it sounds, if he didn't have a reliable jump shot, there would be very real questions about whether he was a Black man or not.  But he's also getting older. He's probably in excellent shape, but years wear you down, especially when compounded by the stress of the job. Although both Bubba and Dubya came running into the presidency, they both left with a limp.
Big Daddy Cane

So our President's days as baller-in-chief are certainly numbered. But like I said, that's not the worst thing in the world. You enjoy it while it lasts, then you move on and help the next ones out.

In the comments to one of the news reports of NeO's injury, a reader speculated about whether the man who busted the President's lip would ever be asked back to the White House game. Maybe Obama would hold a grudge and ban him from the court. Those comments show a profound misunderstanding about the heart of a baller. Seeing the President holding his lip, seething, it's clear to me what's on his mind:  

Let's run that back.