Friday, December 16, 2011

Robert Fulghum on the Basketball Court

One of the pleasures of working at my school is that I serve as one of the PE guys. That means that every Friday I take a bunch of kids down to the gym and play basketball. I like basketball. I like it the way I like writing, which is to say that I love it. I would love to find a way to do a 750words type of thing with basketball where I was playing it every day. As it is, I play on Fridays and that's pretty good.

But playing ball here is different than just picking up a game anywhere. I'm out there with kids from seventh to twelfth grade and of really varying ability. I get to play ball but it might be the most intense _teaching_ that I do all week. I don't want to go all Robert Fulghum on you here, but just about everything that kids need to know they can learn on a basketball court and I'm out there trying to teach them.

Today, there were eight of us in there for half an hour. Two of the players are much better than I am. They can move fast, they handle the ball better, they can jump higher, and they have game. Their shots are smooth, their vision is good. Three other guys are pretty good. They can play but their shots are halting or they don't run (because they smoke too much) or they over-commit on defense and dribble into traffic. And then two more are really terrible. They don't have any fundamentals, don't understand much beyond the fact that their team is trying to get the orange ball through the metal ring. And then there's me.

I'm 43 years old, twenty pounds overweight, and trying to insure that everyone is in the game. So I'm not a killer out there. But I can play. I can cover those first two guys enough to slow them down and I can get by them enough that they don't know how they're letting an old guy score. I can outplay the other five without too much trouble. So I'm comfortable out there, able, and in good enough shape to hang in there with any of them.

Mostly though, I've got a smile. I smile when they make their shots. I punch their shoulders when they pull down a rebound. I tell them when they do things smart. And I'm always directing, bailing people out of bad situations, and telling them not to sweat it when things go badly for them. I try to teach them my smile. I try to show them that it's a game, that they are on a team (and that they will be on a different team next week), and that the only thing they need to do is keep going.

Most of them get that sort of thing even when things go badly once in a while. They come in with chips on their shoulders and they usually, after a few weeks, learn that it's not that type of game here. They play hard and there are kids who never smile, but they get it.

At one point today, I had the ball up top. I wanted to pass but none of my guys were open and there was an opening. The two best guys were there and I saw a seam. I drove. I jumped. I twisted. And when I shot, I knew it was good. One of them said nothing. The other hooted and hollered and said, "look at the old man!" This was the moment I most wanted to teach them about. I nodded to the kid who had yelled. He smiled back at me, shaking his head. The other guy came up to guard me as we inbounded. He said, "hell of a shot, man." I said, "one part luck, one part practice, one part taking a chance." He didn't smile. Instead, he nodded.

Then he stole the ball from me.

I smiled at him and yelled, "don't be cruel to old people!"

Basketball is a good game. It's a better teaching tool. Coming up soon are going to be some new standards to measure what teachers do. Politicians are promising to get tough on teachers. Administrators will be implementing all sorts of new observations and testing schemes to see if people like me are _learning_ these kids what they need to know to feed the economy. I'm hoping that I can get observed in the gym during basketball. I have objectives, a lesson plan, and the whole thing is differentiated for all levels of skill. And every single kid, from those first two, down to the two who can barely play, passes the damn test. When they come out of the gym, every single sweaty kid is a better person than when he came in.

Don't worry though. Basketball is a good game, but so is writing. You should see what they do on paper when, as in a game of hoops, we put the ball out there and all of us get out and play. You should see what they do when we write on.

By the way, I learned everything I need to know about basketball and most of the other stuff at 201 North Street during the eighties and nineties. It's all about being able to hit a hook shot without breaking ankles on the exposed tree roots just off the baseline.