Tonight I am spending my evening watching two basketball games at the community college where I teach. I have, combined, on the women’s and men’s teams, six current students, and at least half a dozen former students. This is not the first basketball game I have been to for my students—I attended one last spring, when the women’s team was tearing it up in the NJCAA tournament. Of the major competitive sports, I fully admit that basketball is the one I follow least. I am rabid in my following of baseball and ice hockey, and I put in a fair showing on the matter of European football and the NFL. I even got fairly embroiled in our (no longer) local Rookie League baseball team, the Casper Ghosts, a Rockies affiliate that has since moved on to greener pastures in Colorado.
But basketball has always been on the fringe of my sports-loves. I get caught up in the March Madness with everyone else, of course, but I don’t understand the niceties of the game. Sitting here on this vaguely uncomfortable moulded plastic, I still don’t understand them. I get the rules in a fairly basic way—shot clock limitations, fouling out—but unless it’s NBA-level traveling, taking the ball for a walk on a leash, more or less, I can’t see those sorts of infractions. And I watch too much ice hockey to see the foul in a little bump, in obstruction. So this is not a post about basketball, at least not in the way that it could be.
What this post is about is about putting my money where my mouth is.
I said: I have been to a women’s basketball game at my current campus before. Almost a year ago. At that time, I knew about half of the players that I know now. (It’s a small school—if one teaches a Tuesday/Thursday section of one of the required sections, wherein the athletes stand a lesser chance of missing classes due to their traveling schedule—it doesn’t take many semesters to see a lot of them, very quickly.) I enjoyed the heck out of the experience; college athletics have a kind of energy about them that is difficult to recreate anywhere else. It was also a playoff: no second chances, no takebacks, no do-overs. All of that is everything the movies chalk it up to be, if one cares at all about the competition.
On Tuesday, in the first of my Composition II classes, the one in which I have six of our college’s basketball players (five women, one man), I asked if there were any campus events going on this week, any announcements. And I’d looked at the schedule—I knew they had a game tonight. So I said that at least six people had something to say, and two of the women’s players dutifully announced the game times, and someone else announced an internationally themed dinner in the cafeteria, and then we moved on to our discussion of Annie Dillard and the various ways writers utilize research. After class, I wished the hoopsters luck, and one of them said it was going to be a big game—regional rivals, another quality bunch of players, a real contest—would I find time to come? Another one of the students, one I had had in class just the previous semester in Composition I, said, “She never comes to our games.”
And I couldn’t deny that, not to that student. This is her first year on the team. I’d gone the whole first half of the season without attending, despite my insistence that students get involved, despite my imploring that everyone take advantage of the many excellent entertainment opportunities afforded by the college environment, despite my adamant imprecations to support each other in their various endeavors. I was stunned, actually, that she said as much, stunned and then quite shamed.
I have to admit: I never thought my athletes noticed. I’ve been to plays, musical performances, art sales, and gallery exhibitions—lots of things like that. Those students—the performers—they notice. They bask in the attention. They hug me after theatre performances while they’re still covered in greasepaint and sweaty from playing Russian bear wrestlers on stage. They make bad music puns smoothly and glibly while they preen. They notice because, to a certain extent, pursuing the fine arts is pursuing a career in being noticed—it’s part of the game: showmanship, pride in the art, the practice, the skill.
But I love sports, too. I played. I have to make conscious efforts to leave the house during baseball season. And I’ve been to lacrosse games, soccer matches, and rugby meets to cheer on students. I’ve been to what I thought was my first and only rodeo, but I think I’ll have to try again because I’ve got a saddle bronc rider in Composition II and a barrel racer who was in creative non-fiction last semester who wrote about the sport with the kind of frank clarity and long memory that comes only from doing something quite literally since she was in the womb. The players have consistently avoided eye contact—not that they’re ashamed of what they do, not that they’re embarrassed because their completely dorky English teacher with the weird hair has come and is waving, dear Christ, but because, for some of them, the game is a kind of private joy. It only happens to be public and they’ve had nothing to do with that. Maybe this is particularly true for those students who are not—who know they are not—going to pursue a professional career in sport. Maybe they’ll become coaches, maybe they’ll become trainers or physical therapists or doctors specializing in sports medicine or maybe they’ll never look back after that last season ends and will do nothing in athletics again.
Maybe it’s that, when they’re in the zone, they stay there. Win or lose, it’s hard to come out of that in-game mindset for most athletes. I spent a dozen years playing competitive softball—no matter the outcome, coming out of that space involves risk. Sometimes it’s the risk of having to acknowledge failure. That Lady T-Birds game I went to last spring ended in a loss. I remember those days: I didn’t want to say anything to anyone then; I didn’t want to look around for people in the crowd. And after a win, there is often the pressure to remain focused, to avoid too much open celebration. No one wants coach to think she’s not serious; no one wants the reporters to think he’s unsportsmanlike. They name a lot of penalties for that for good reason.
Maybe it’s a lot of things—the only time I have ever been certain was in the case of the Binghamton Red Devils rugby match I went to as a graduate student TA. My student, who insisted I call him “Kooz” all semester, didn’t know I was there because he got severely concussed while we were standing at the sidelines. He did ask, though, the following class, if I’d been to the match because someone had told him I was there. “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t remember much about Saturday morning.” I definitely get that.
Maybe it’s none of those. Knowing why isn’t the point. The heart of it is that I’ve become used to my presence at sporting events going unnoticed. And it isn’t at all that I go to be noticed; I go because I love sports. (I am alone among my colleagues in this, which is not much of a surprise in an English department.) But I will say that I’ve gotten a little lazy, a little slack in my attendance because I thought I was unnoticed. Teaching five sections of composition, creative writing, and/or literature courses in any given semester has left me a lot more cautious with my evenings, with whatever time I can legitimately claim as my own. I call this my reason, my excuse.
But my students knew that I hadn’t been there. They did notice. It was my women’s players who brought it to my attention. I imagine that my men’s players feel the same way, but they would rather die than articulate it. (I’ve never met a more tight-lipped bunch than my men’s basketball players. I think the rodeo lads say more than they do, and that’s a Herculean feat.)
I don’t think they noticed and said so because I’m a woman and so are they. (I think my students have long ago decided that anyone who feels that strongly about the Oxford comma cannot possibly be human at all.) I think it’s because they smelled the faint scent of hypocrisy about me, and that is exactly as it ought to be. Pedagogy—even the bits on the periphery, the parts that have nothing to do with grading papers and everything to do with being kind, being generous, being true—cannot be a system in which we tell students to do as we say, not as we do. My students humble me, they keep me honest. It should always be this way.
I am sitting here in the gymnasium, and the game is tied with two and a half minutes to go. I do not know how it will end, right this minute, but I surely will before I even finish this paragraph. My palms and fingertips are blotched red-and-white with clapping, and here, while the teams are in a time-out and the court has stilled, save the little huddles to each side as the trainers distribute water, I see another one of my students, one from Composition I. She is one of the student trainers, someone who is taking a class in that particular area, and she is in the process of learning to tape ankles and take care of sports injuries. I didn’t know she did this. Right now, she sits courtside with the rest of the team, intent on the game, with another of my students who is a player but who has been battling an ankle injury since last semester when she spent most of November on crutches.
I was wrong about the game: there’s still nearly thirty seconds left. We’re up by seven points, and we’re at the free-throw line. The other team has entered the phase where fouling is necessary if they don’t get the rebound; time is everything now, and there may not be enough seconds left, no matter what the luck. I know the outcome now: up by eleven with ten seconds left, and now the end.
The women gather in the center of the court, they join hands, they cheer: a ritual they are certainly used to, when they are 12-1 this season, coming off back-to-back Region IX championships. None of them look up at the stands; I can see no way that they can see or have seen me. This doesn’t change anything. I have seen what they are capable of, and I am proud. I have done, also, what I know that I am capable of, which is living my pedagogy, which is not getting complacent, which is not taking a season off simply because I think no one is paying attention.