I was standing behind my desk at the front of my study-hall class when I saw Kelso walking down the school hallway. It was mid-period and the hallway empty but for him. His movement, out of place as it was, caught my eye through the little portrait window that was standard in every classroom door in the school. For a moment I thought he might be looking for me. The first cracks were in the wall already as far as my team was concerned. Not everyone would have seen the signs, but Kelso, knowing the game and the personalities involved, would have understood that I was in trouble, maybe better than I did.
I did not have the slightest notion of granting even the humblest, most sincere plea for another chance. I could not bring him back onto the team. I may have by then realized my mistake and I may have even started to regret it and to understand that there were consequences beyond what I had imagined, but I had drawn the line and there would be no erasing it. The resentment that I feared his inclusion would have caused originally would only be amplified if I now made the admission, inherent in any such act, that I had been wrong in the first place and that what this team really needed was the guy that everyone else on the team had convinced themselves to hate. I told myself that I didn’t want such a conversation and that I hoped that Kelso would not knock on my door.
But when he passed it by, other feelings overcame me; emotions that I was not ready for. I felt a sense of loss and even loneliness.
I stepped toward the little window to watch him approach Aletha’s classroom door. I saw the hall pass in his hand. He had been summoned. I crossed to the window side of my classroom and rocked open the lever lock on the window nearest Aletha’s room, angled the pane out and began to listen, doing my best not to let on; not to let anyone in the room suspect what I was doing.
I could not make out the first few exchanges, but I knew from the very start that this conversation would not be like the others I had heard. I had to pick out words here and there and train my ears to the frequencies and tones that my clandestine listening post allowed me. But the desire to know a secret can do wonders for your hearing. My ears adjusted and I heard every syllable, as if they were in my room, right in front of me.
Thanks for coming up, Danny. Thanks to Mrs. Fisher, too, for letting you come.
Yes, ma’m. I was finished in there anyway. For the day.
Do you know why I sent for you?
Well. I have an offer to make you. A kind of offer.
No. Not yet. Mind if I ask you a couple of questions, first?
No. I don’t mind. Go ahead.
Danny, do you think people are all about the same?
Yeah, I guess. In a lot of ways.
So, in some ways, you see that people are different?
But mostly the same?
I think. In lots of ways, yeah.
What are the ways that you see that people are different?
I don’t know. Size?
Well, yes. Some people are tall, some short. But I take it that you don’t see that kind of difference as meaning much, do you?
No. Except in sports, maybe.
So, you see differences between people in sports?
Sure. Don’t you?
Yes. I do. I understand that. The taller player may have an advantage in basketball. What other differences do you see?
Well, there are differences in ability. Some guys are faster than others. Some stronger. Some have better balance, better skills.
I agree. And it’s pretty amazing how much difference there is between players. You’ve got to be pretty good to make the high-school team, don’t you think?
I sure do. Those guys are really good.
And yet, how many of those really good players will go on to play in college?
Don’t know. Not very many?
I just looked at the statistics on that. About one in thirty. A little more than that, maybe, but not much.
I’m surprised it’s that high.
It gets better. You know how many college players make it to the NBA?
I did not hear Kelso’s reply here. He might have shrugged his shoulders.
A little more than one percent of them. About one out of a hundred. You take three percent of one percent and that’s the percentage of high-school players that make it to the NBA.
I’m not really surprised at that. What’s the point, though?
Well, I’m not quite done. Even after those really good players have made it to the NBA, would you say that there are differences between them, even there? Even at that level?
Absolutely. Anybody knows that.
Even at that level, there are a few players around who can leave everybody else in the dust, right?
Sure. Just watch any game. Jerry West. Oscar Robertson. Chamberlain. Nobody can guard those guys. Nobody can stop them.
So, you’ll agree with me, then, that the differences between people are vast, at least in sports, right?
Yes. It’s amazing.
Well. Here’s the thing I want to convince you of: the differences between people in athletic ability – as vast as those differences are – are small differences compared to the other differences between people.
I don’t believe that.
I knew you wouldn’t. Because the message you get here in the school and everywhere else you go in this town is just the opposite of that. The message you get is that people are all about the same – except in sports. I am here to tell you that the differences in athletic ability that are so obvious to you are nothing compared to the differences in people intellectually, mentally and in character, generally.
Why do you think that?
Good question. I think that because I’ve seen it. I was lucky. My parents had money and they were educated and well-connected and, well, I got their genes and I got into good schools. Into places where those differences were obvious. Let me ask you this: If there were no basketball goals around – no gymnasiums and no hoops – do you think Jerry West would have achieved the distinction that he has today?
Probably not. Are you trying to say that he doesn’t deserve it? That it’s unfair for him to be famous?
Not at all. He does deserve it. I’m trying to say the opposite. I’m trying to say that the natural differences in people – vast differences – only become obvious when those people have a chance to exercise and develop their skill. Jerry West has great gifts. Fantastic gifts. But no one would ever have known it if there were not places for him to show it and competition to hone him and great coaches to bring the best out in him.
Okay. I get that. But I still don’t see where you’re going.
What if I told you that I think you have abilities as profound as those of Jerry West?
With all due respect, I’d say you were crazy. I didn’t even make the team.
You know I’m not talking about basketball. Your best abilities aren’t athletic, but they are enough to distinguish you in a way that you can’t imagine right now. Let me tell you about what I saw in my schools. I went to The Westminster School in Atlanta. I was a good enough student to be there, but I wasn’t the best. I saw people there who had amazing gifts. Have you heard about players getting their game so advanced that they see the court in a different way?
No. But I’ve heard about baseball players who say that when they are really on top of it the pitch seems to slow down as it comes to the plate. It’s like they’re hitting a stationary ball, they say.
That’s kind of what I mean. These people, Danny, they could – they can – read a book in no time and remember every page. They can pick up foreign languages almost out of the air. They think so fast that the world slows down for them. Like the baseball for those hitters.
They could dunk.
Yes. Slam dunks. Right and left.
Well. I don’t see that, myself.
Let’s get back to basketball, then. How many boys in your class?
Not exactly sure. About two-hundred-fifty, I guess.
How many good players?
Five. Four or five head and shoulders above the rest.
The rest of them?
Well, there’s some at the bottom. Never been taught. You know.
But the middle. Take out the very top and the very bottom and the guys in that big, wide middle – all two-hundred and forty of them – not too much difference, right?
Some. But I see what you mean.
Okay, Danny. It’s the same with intellectual gifts. There are lots of average people around. The woods are full of them. But what I am telling you is that there are people with such extraordinary gifts that they see the world in a whole different way.
Why aren’t there any around here? By your theory there ought to be a few, even at this school.
That’s the second good question. I think there might be a few. It’s just not that obvious.
Why is that?
Well, if there was such a person around here – or even two or three of them, how would you know it?
They’d make good grades. Ace every test.
What if those people had no motive to ace the test? What if they believed that acing a test would make people dislike them? What if acing tests was not as big a deal as dunking a basketball or making a twenty-footer?
I don’t know. I think you could still tell. It’d be obvious.
Even if it was something that they were trying to hide? Well, let’s put it this way. Let’s talk about Jerry West again. Let’s say that he was here among us and there was just no interest in basketball. Nobody else plays. Nobody cheers. Nobody comes to watch. No coaches. No teams. No competition. We might never know about Jerry West’s amazing abilities. We might think he’s just another ordinary guy.
I don’t know what you’re trying to say.
Well, I think there are talented people around this school who don’t have what they need to show the world how different they are, how talented they are. The idea of intellectual excellence is so absent from the world they move in, they don’t even know of their own gifts; their own powers. And then, I think there are some others who maybe are deliberately hiding their talents. Hiding their lights under a bushel, if you know what I mean.
I know the song.
I think you’re one of those. I think you’re hiding. Faking it.
You’re faking that you’re just an average guy. I think that’s what you want people to think. And it’s not true.
What makes you think that?
Your test scores, for starters.
You got those?
I’m allowed, you know.
Not yet. You know how often your math score occurs in the general population of people your age? I shouldn’t even be asking you that. Of course you do, anybody with a score like that would know, better than I would. You do know, don’t you?
Can any teacher get access to those?
You’re not answering my question. Do you know where your math score puts you?
No. Not exactly. I know what the score was, but I don’t know how it compares, generally.
You’re in the top one-tenth of one percent.
Yes. Of course. “Oh.” That’s just your response, isn’t it? You’re one out of a thousand of your peers and you don’t even stop to figure that out? Think about what it means?
No. It doesn’t matter.
You’re making my case for me. It does matter. Or it can matter, if you make it matter. It can mean the difference between living the life of an average Joe or walking onto the campus at Yale or Harvard with a full scholarship and from there, who knows.
I don’t want to go to Yale. I don’t care about that stuff.
You don’t know what you want. You can’t possibly. You don’t know what’s available. You don’t know what life can be like.
All my friends are here.
You know, Danny, I’m here to give students an education. That’s what they pay me for. I do that to some degree, give or take, every day. But I can tell you something right now that if you’ll take it in I’ll have earned my salary for the whole year. It’s that important.
Do you know what friends really are?
Yeah. People you get along with. People you like.
That’s not wrong, but there is more to it than that. Much more. Do you know what true friends can do for each other?
Help each other out? Have fun?
Again, not wrong. But here is what friends can do for you. They tell you who you are. Not in so many words, maybe, but a true friend can tell you how you are different from everyone else. A friend can notice your talents and strengths and encourage you in the use of them. They can tell you what you have. A true friend will encourage you in your fight against resentment and injustice.
Sounds right to me.
You’re not going to find that here. I’m sorry, but the people you are surrounded by are either unable to see you for who you are or they do see and are jealous and resentful and will never give you the slightest clue, the first idea, of what they actually know about you.
I don’t see how you think you know anything about me.
Some of that is your fault, you know. You are hiding. You dogged it on the rest of that test, didn’t you? You scored in the fifty-seventh percentile in word skills and in the forty-ninth in logic. Pardon my pun here, but that doesn’t add up. You dogged it. You were serious on the math part. That score can’t be faked. It was a game. You wanted to see what you could do. But you shut your eyes and checked boxes on the rest of the test, didn’t you? You wanted to keep your overall score in the normal range to keep yourself off the radar.
Why did you check my scores?
Because I saw the Hedgesville game. I was sitting there when you were first down the floor on the fast-break. You were all by yourself heading straight for the basket. More than once. An open layup. And nobody would give you the ball.
And that made you think I was smart?
No. But it did make me think. Wonder, really, about what was going on. When you got cut from the team, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It really bothered me. You should have made it. You know that.
I still don’t get it. Why would that bother you?
Let’s just say that I have had my share of unfair rejection. Let’s just say I want to right a wrong.
They didn’t keep the ball away from me because I am smart. There are other reasons.
That’s what you think. But of they have a reason, it’s because they were looking for a reason. My money is on this: they get it. On some level they do see that you’ve got something they don’t. And they’ll never give you the slightest clue about it. Never admit what they’ve seen in you. They just want you out of the picture. No one here even really knows you. The person you show to the world – to your friends, as you call them – is not the person you really are. You know Robert Flinchbaugh, don’t you?
Everybody knows Robert.
What do you think about Robert?
To tell the truth, I think he’s a clown.
He wears a bow tie every day. He eats flowers for lunch. The way he talks.
You know why?
I can’t imagine.
Think about it. What is he trying to do? It’s not that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s a reason for it.
You must think you know what it is.
I do know. But let’s see if you can figure it out. What is Robert after with his odd dressing and eating?
Well, he says that the flowers have something in them.
They’re violets. People do eat them. Have for years.
They don’t all make a big production about it, I’ll bet.
I’d say your right there. What does that tell you?
I don’t know. He wants people to think he’s crazy?
Well, he obviously wants people to think something. What does he want?
I can’t imagine. Whatever it is, it isn’t working.
I agree with that. It isn’t working at all. But what is he aiming at? What does he want people to think about him?
He wants people to think that he’s really smart. Smarter than everybody else.
No. If he was smart he’d have better sense than to go on with all those antics. They don’t impress anybody. Don’t fool anybody.
So. Robert is putting on a front. Trying to convince people that he something he’s not. And he’s a mess, right?
No argument from me.
Does he have any real friends?
No. People avoid him. Laugh at him behind his back. To his face.
You’re doing the same thing he is. Except in reverse. You’re trying your best to convince everyone around you that you are no different from anyone else. You are posing.
I do have friends. No one is laughing behind my back. I’m not a clown.
Okay. I’ll give you that. What I am trying to tell you, though, is that no one can really know you, no one can really be your friend, if you’re posing as somebody else.
I’m not saying I buy it. I don’t. But, so what? What if you’re right. So what?
So you’ve cut yourself off from any real friendship; any real life. I would think that would be lonely.
I’m not lonely.
You don’t know what you’re capable of. How much deeper your life could be
I still don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think I do that anymore than anybody else does.
You do. Other people hide things, sure. Everybody to some degree. But , there aren’t very many who are hiding as much as you are. Most people don’t have anything that big to hide. You’re even hiding from yourself.
So, you think things would be easier for me if I’d change some things?
No. Nothing will be easier. In fact, things might even be harder for you for a while. You mighth get a real dose of what your afraid you’ll get.
Not easier. Just better.
Well, like your life might actually lead somewhere – where it ought to lead. Where you’re fit to go. You’re on a dead end street right now.
I’m in the top half of the class and not even trying.
I’m glad to hear you admit that. But you are trying. You’re trying very hard not to excel. Where do you think being in the top half of your class will get you?
I don’t know. Decent job.
Maybe. Maybe not. But even if you get a job that you can make a living on, you’ll be completely surrounded by people who are not nearly as smart or as capable as you are. You’ll see them for what they are. They will limit you. You’ll be bored to death. It will drive you crazy. You’ll never be happy in your work.
Work is work. Nobody’s happy about that.
There you go again. You think that the researchers who won the Nobel prize aren’t happy in their work? You think the novelists who win the Pulitzer aren’t happy in their work? As happy as Jerry West is in his?
I’m not talking about that kind of work.
You could do that kind of work.
I don’t believe you.
I know. I know. It’s probably not fair to expect you to. But I’m asking – offering – a way for you to get a glimpse of what’s possible for you.
Have you ever read Tarzan?
Saw the movie.
You know how Tarzan gets through the jungle?
Could just anybody do that?
No. You’d have to be very strong.
As strong as Tarzan.
Well, I think you’re that strong. And I can offer you a grapevine that will take you soaring over this jungle and it will lead you – just like Tarzan – to the next grapevine. There will come a day, and sooner than you think, when every problem you face – every enmity, every jealousy, every resentment, every injustice, unfairness – will be drowned like Pharoah’s horsemen in the sea. You’ll look back on these days and marvel at the idea that you could ever have troubled yourself over such things. You’ll look back and thank your stars that you were cut from the basketball team.
Before the period was over she had explained the debate team to him and he had bought in. When the bell rang I backed away from the window and found that my hand, still gripping the lever, had gone to sleep. I walked into the hallway with the crowd, my classroom time over for the day.
They say that policemen and fire fighters have a sixth sense. I’ve heard them talk of it myself. They are chasing a fugitive or in a burning house and something – a chill up the back, an unexplained pressure – tells them not to take the next step. They find out later that the bad guy was hiding on the other side of the door with a scythe or length of pipe in hand or that the rafters in the next room collapsed only seconds after they backed away. They claim that the feeling came out of nowhere, that it was God speaking to them, protecting them from catastrophe.
The psychologists disagree. They acknowledge that this happens, but they believe that the decision was based not on direct divine intervention, but on a thousand little clues that the men have been trained to pick up. These have subconsciously registered and at the tipping point some part of their consciousness, something beyond their articulation, sends a firm but wordless warning.
As I walked away from that window, having heard that candid analysis of my own actions, I felt that same sensation; it was like I was frozen for a moment. I don’t know whether it was from God or a message from my subconscious. I would not let myself think about what it meant. But now I know. The message was that I was worshiping the wrong god; that I needed to turn around. Whatever it was had figured out and tried to confront me with the fact that I had chosen to play my own game, by my own rules and, even at that, I was losing.