That year I had the last class period of the day open to give me time in my office before the boys came in for practice. The hour before that I supervised a study hall in the room next to Victoria Rockwell’s. There were only a few kids in that section and they were good ones. They really used the time to study and the room was very quiet. I could hear pretty clearly what was going on in the next classroom, particularly on those warm autumn days when both windows were open. When it got interesting, I stood at the window and turned my ear to the outside. The kids in the study hall did not know I was listening.
Victoria was organizing a debate team. And I was interested in any technique or psychology that might be effective in the recruiting of high-schoolers. A debate team, of course, was the kind of thing that most kids – certainly the ones who played for me – would have done almost anything to avoid. It would have involved more classroom-type work and would have been a stigma in that very stratified world of Walhonde High School. She obviously knew that, because she was not attempting to recruit anybody with any social standing. There were cheerleaders and majorettes and even a few football players who were all-around achievers – outstanding students and confident speakers and who, if they could have been persuaded, might have anchored such a team and made it, from the start, more attractive to others. Victoria Rockwell knew that, I am sure. She had all those kids in her classes and knew their parents. She might have prevailed on them, too. As unattractive as the proposition might have initially been, Miss Rockwell was a force and could have easily brought parental pressure to bear for her. But she did not take that route.
I knew the school pretty well by then, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what Victoria’s standards for recruitment were. She started with Carla Turley, a girl so painfully shy and withdrawn that you never heard her say a word or saw her make eye contact with anybody. The reasons for this fear and self-doubt were not immediately obvious. Carla was tall and slender and better put together than any of the girls who reigned at the school. I saw this, and I knew that other men on the faculty saw it, but she was completely ignored by the boys at the school. Although she stayed out of trouble, she was not an outstanding student and carried no reputation of being industrious or interested in anything extra-curricular. I heard the conversation between Miss Rockwell and her. It was pretty one-sided, of course, and it consisted in large part of Victoria trying to convince the girl that there were things that she could actually enjoy about school and about life and that being a part of a debate team might be one of them. She promised that it would not involve any more commitment than an agreement to participate in one debate.
When Carla Turley at last told Victoria Rockwell that she would give it a try, it was the first time I had ever heard her voice.
The next recruit was Karen McAvoy, a tiny redhead, who, like Carla, was not noted for excellence in the classroom.
She was a sophomore who lived in a house-trailer with her six siblings at the end of Dry Ridge Road and on the very edge of our school’s district. It was a seven-mile drive to the school from her home and for five of those miles the road was steep, narrow, crooked as a snake and poorly maintained. Dangerous enough anytime, but treacherous in the winter. Because of this, Karen rode the dreaded early bus and, because of that, had no opportunity to participate in anything the school sponsored outside the classroom. A redhead, she was always neat and clean, but her clothes often did not fit her well. They were years old and obviously out of synch with the styles that were strictly adhered to there and then and that were necessary if one were to a have any chance at social acceptance.
Anyone at the school – student, faculty or administrator would have shared my own bewilderment about this choice. There was nothing in Karen McAvoy’s record to suggest that she could – or would even want to try to – hold her own in a battle of words or wits. But I had another reason to doubt the wisdom of this choice. I had a scouting report on Karen McAvoy that I had not shared with anyone.
Karen’s bus would normally arrive at the school at around seven o’ clock, an hour before the first class-bell rang. These unfortunate few travelers from the hinterlands were not free to enter and roam the school hallways but were shunted into the cafeteria through a back fire-door. And they waited there, seated at the lunch tables, until the first bell signaled that the front doors and the hallways were open. Supervision of this too-early and usually dull affair was unenvied and thus rotated through the faculty. And one week in early October I had the duty.
I remember the scene very well. The school cafeteria was a cavernous room with long lines of tables set end to end and these forty-some unfortunate long-travelers always sat more or less together in that corner of the room nearest the door they came in. I don’t know if that arrangement was enforced to make the oversight of the group easier or whether it was the result of some resigned herd instinct or sheer fatigue. That early it was still completely dark outside. The institutional fluorescent lighting in the cafeteria had been designed for daytime use only and its dull, insufficient glow added to the impression that this gathering was accidental and outside of anything that had been planned for or intended. These were the outliers, the refugees of our little town. There was never any of the normal energy or buzz that otherwise filled every room in the school when the kids were present. These kids did not talk to each other, although they were permitted that here. They sat among the mounds of books, coats, gym kits and lunchboxes that burdened their long days and often laid their heads down on the tables to sleep.
And on this particular morning, Karen McAvoy was sound asleep. The first class bell and the shuffling departure of the rest of the group did not wake her. I knew that she had fifteen minutes before she had to be in her homeroom and I decided to let her sleep; to give this girl, who had probably had to tend the chickens before she left home at six-thirty, another ten minutes of rest.
Because of ongoing roof repairs in one wing of the building, there were a couple of homerooms that met in the cafeteria that fall and soon after the first bell a few of the kids came filtering in to the room where Karen McAvoy was sleeping. The Martin twins, Linda and Brenda, had a reputation for bullying and they went immediately to the table where Karen McAvoy slept and began poking through her belongings. One of them lifted Karen’s lunchbag and opened it and then closed her eyes and pinched her nose as if the food inside were rancid. She said, rather loudly, “P. U.” This was a mistake. The Martins, sophomoric as they were, did not understand two things that were about to affect them profoundly. They did not understand that Karen McAvoy would not have known or, more likely, would have had complete disregard for, any reputation they had for toughness among the bourgeois. And they had no idea what it was like to miss a meal. Karen woke up and when she saw that her lunch had been pilfered she had the look of a cornered animal. A cornered predator, I should say. She was out of her chair in a flash and with an efficiency that had to have been the result of long training rammed her shoulder into Brenda Martin’s gut and sent her sprawling, skirt, sweater, Bass Weejuns and all, onto the tile floor. As she fell, Brenda managed to toss the lunchbag to Linda and Karen McAvoy took two steps and rammed Linda with the same shoulder, knocking her back into the cinderblock wall and loosening her grip on that little brown bag. By the time I made it there, Karen had retrieved her lunch, more or less intact, and it was clear that the Martin twins, surprised, disheveled and bruised, did not want any more of this.
The rules about fighting in the school were very clear. It meant expulsion. And I was under an absolute and strictly-enforced duty to report any such goings on to the administration immediately. Karen McAvoy, being a part of this sad and suspect early-bus group, would have known that. I would have thought that a kid like her would have considered me with fear in that situation. But she showed no sign of anxiety as she faced me that early morning. Her look was one of dead-pan composure, saying to me, more effectively than words could have, there is nothing within the law that you can do to me to make my life any worse.
You know very well by now that I regret, and have good reason to regret, many of the decisions I made in my role there at the school. But I decided on that morning that I would not report Karen McAvoy and that what needed to be settled there had been settled and I did not speak a word of it to anyone. And that is one decision I have never regretted.
When I saw Karen McAvoy, carrying a hall pass, go into Mrs. Rockwell’s room, I went directly to the window and opened it, even against the chill, and strained to hear every word I could. Any conversation between this fireball of a country girl and the finely-turned-out English teacher would be, well, I did not know exactly what it would be.
The conversation between Karen McAvoy and Victoria Rockwell was absolutely fascinating to me. I have to admit that the competitor in me gives me great sympathy and respect for anyone who goes all out in anything and, particularly, for anyone who will venture against long odds. I was interested in hearing anything this girl would say and when I saw her go into Victoria’s classroom that afternoon I went to the window closest to her room and opened it, even against the chill, and strained to hear every word.
When I heard Victoria speaking to Karen about the debate team, I had mixed emotions. My own upbringing was not that much different from Karen’s and I was very close then to lots of other families who lived in much the same way as she did. I had some idea of her struggles and identified with her. In one way then, her being given an opportunity – even if it was one for which she was not well-fitted and one that would be considered a disgrace by most of her peers – was something, just one more among many somethings, that I found admirable and attractive about Victoria.
When Victoria promised that she would drive Karen home after practices – in the new GTO – she signed on.
Jeff Anderson was known within that fixed community only for one thing – his excessive weight. He had everything that went with it, too. He was clumsy and reputedly lazy and constantly engaged in desperate efforts to make others laugh, even if it was at him. These efforts often landed him in trouble; but I, even then, had some inkling about this choice. Even though his grades were average – probably as a result of a deliberate effort to prevent himself from being further separated from his peers – it was known among the faculty that he had scored at the profoundly gifted level on an IQ test given him by a school counselor.
At first he was having none of it. Given that he had no audience at the moment, he was respectful to Miss Rockwell. And his reasons or excuses, although false, were plausible enough to have convinced anyone before cross-examination. He was carrying a heavy class load; he had duties at home that his parents would not release him from; there were health issues. But Miss Rockwell did not cross examine. She told him this: “Tell me the truth, Jeff. Do you ever want to win? Ever want to know that you were the best guy in the room at something and be able to walk out of the room sure of that? You don’t have to answer that, because I know that you do. And I know that you can. I’m sure of it. You can do this, Jeff. You can win. You can beat the other guys and walk out of the room a winner. I can teach you how, and I want to. I want you to show them what you’ve got.”
He was in.
The last one of Victoria’s recruits was Danny Kelso.
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. With the departure of Fouch, 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 Victoria’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 Victoria’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.”
“That’s three out of a ten-thousand. I’m not really surprised at that. What’s the point, though?”
“Well, I’m not quite finished. 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 their game 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. They will use anything they do know about you to try to win their own game.”
“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’m smart. They’ve got other reasons.”
“That’s what you think. But if 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 might get a real dose of what you’re 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?”
“You’d have to be pretty close.”
“Well, I think you’re that strong. And I can offer you a grapevine that will take you soaring over this jungle you’re in right now. The day will come, and sooner than you think, when every problem you face – every enmity, every jealousy, every resentment, every injustice, unfairness – will be drowned like Pharaoh’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.”
“I don’t want more work to do.”
“What about a fight? Will you take on a real fight?”
“What kind of a fight?”
“It’s a fight you’re made for. A fight that you can win. A fight where you can show them what you’ve got. I can’t say that it won’t hurt some, if you do it right. But the injuries here are never debilitating and never permanent. You’ll just get stronger. Just get better. I say that you’ll do it once and be hooked. I’m just asking for one round from you.”
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.
That check the county sent me every month was to pay me for educating young men. For teaching them right from wrong; for teaching them to love what they ought to love. They should have loved basketball. It is the very thing that can absorb them fully, can give them a perfect avenue for their strengths and energies, give them that complete escape from this world that young men often need. I was right to teach them that. But they also should have loved justice. I was supposed to teach them that, too. That justice was a lovely thing. A thing more lovely even than basketball. And I was teaching them just the opposite. I was not being paid by the county to promote myself; to put together a team that would maximize my opportunities for advancement. I was being paid to teach; to be an example, to show them that being fair meant more than winning. Victoria understood all of this. I did not.
And, thus, the first Walhonde High School Debate Team was born.
What these four rag-tags had in common was that they hated their lives. That is, they hated the situations they were in and seemed incapable of escaping. They – all four of them – did have some aspiration, but had met only with frustration and disappointment all of their lives. They all were victims of one injustice or another and had varying degrees of awareness of that.
Mrs. Rockwell used the debate format to teach them first how to think.
As everyone had expected, the newly-formed Walhonde High School debate team got its clock cleaned in its first match against Charleston High, but they did not give up. In fact, they continued for the entirety of Danny Kelso’s time at the school, with a heavy, year-long schedule. They traveled to Pittsburgh, Columbus, Ohio, Morgantown, Washington D. C. and Richmond. They worked with the zeal of the outcast who had tasted salvation. They never lost another match.
Although I did not fully realize it before, it is clear to me now why Mrs. Rockwell chose as she did. She was not aiming at excellence. Not aiming at finding those clever and advantaged and balanced kids who had been trained to check the right boxes on the way to success. She was aiming at transformation. And she achieved it. The kids she picked were perfect for the project, because they wanted to be transformed. They did not know it at the time, but they were all of strong character and all in situations not of their own making that hemmed them in on every side and kept them from becoming what they could and should have been. So, as we coaches put it, they “bought in.” They were immediately willing – willing to invest fully and, soon enough, willing to risk giving better than they had ever given before and losing. What they learned, very quickly, was that when they ventured outside that closed system within the school – and in some cases, their families – there were other standards, higher in many ways, but far more fair. And they found that those standards were not impossible to approach and that there were no biased judges working against them. Having a fair chance to meet those standards made their failure to measure up to their small world’s counterfeit standards a lot more bearable and, soon enough, completely meaningless.
They also learned how to think. How to think critically and rationally and of course, having learned that, they began to see the flaws in the thought patterns of everyone around them – those who dictated the system under which they had lived. Pretty soon there was not a teacher in the school who could get anything by them and thereafter the Soviet-style ostracism no longer hurt and then it was simply no longer noticed.