By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Still, I shouldn’t overemphasize the negative — a tendency of mine. (And no wonder!) There were times — even terms — when I did quite well, coming first in the odd exam and earning warm praise from my teachers. But having done so, I soon returned to my old ways. Before long, I was indulging in “mischief” and “silly behavior in class,” which was apt to get you sent straight out of class and into the corridor. There you were made to stand face to the wall, hands behind your back. I remember that wall quite well, having stood in front of it many a time. It was constructed of glazed brick and lined with framed black-and-white group photographs of all the other poor bastards who had passed through the same establishment. Standing there, you would tremble with fear lest the Headmaster, brooding savagely over his wife’s rumored infidelity, should happen to pass by. Often he did.
Scene: the Headmaster’s gloomy, book-lined study, blinds discreetly drawn. Instruction: “Drop your trousers.” Trembling, you did so as the Headmaster picked up a sneaker (known as a “plimsole”) only slightly smaller than Shaquille O’Neal’s. He then gravely intoned a single word: “Bend.” After gazing at his quivering target for what seemed an unnecessary amount of time, he would mutter: “Six.” Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack (followed by, if he was in a really bad mood), THWACK!
After this, you would pull up your pants, try to keep the tears sprouting from your eyes, and walk with unexaggerated stiffness to your next class, which was invariably something truly horrifying like Double Science.
Fortunately, there was the occasional respite. Acting, for instance. “What an excellent Dauphin he made,” enthused the Headmaster in my report card (Easter, 1973), referring to my role as Charles VII in Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc. “One of the highlights of the term.”
My pleasure in reading this was slightly marred when, not recalling much about either the Dauphin or the play, I did a Google search to see exactly what kind of character I had so convincingly impersonated. The results were not quite what I’d hoped for. A 2001 theater review in the SF Weekly of a performance of Saint Joan characterized the Dauphin as “a highstrung, whiny young man in a sacklike outfit” who “knowshe’s being pushed around by the bishops and feudal lords of France but can’t help it.” Hmm.
At least there was Sports — best of all, soccer — in which my attention deficit disorder was joyously trampled to death in the soaking mud of a lopsided English field. Sports show up on my report card, too. In fact, my favorite comments come under the subject line Soccer:
Christmas term, 1970: “He has become a valuable asset to the Colts Team. His ball control is good [what do you mean, ‘good’? It was brilliant] although he occasionally keeps the ball rather longer than he should.” [Okay, but so does Ronaldinho.]
Christmas term, 1972: “He played as a link for the 1st XI most successfully and thoroughly deserved his Colours.” The Headmaster chipped in by noting that while “Maths is still a very great weakness . . . his soccer has been first-rate.” I received similarly high marks in cricket (“a first-class close fielder”) — my position on the field, believe it or not, was called Silly Mid-Off, “silly” being a euphemism for “suicidal,” since it involved standing about five feet in front of the batsman — and slightly lesser ones for rugby (“quite a strong runner and tackler, but his handling is weak”).
Nonetheless, it’s well known that failures on the sports field tend to traumatize us far longer than seemingly more important ones in the classroom. Dylan Thomas, surveying his place in English poetry, reverted to a sports metaphor when he referred to himself as “Captain of the Second XI.” In other words, he wasn’t quite up there with the big boys like Donne and Byron and Auden, who were on the first team. I’m still proud, of course, of that scintillating hat trick I scored when I was 16 or so against Westminster, but what of that open goal I missed, the entire goal mouth gaping in front of me, in that much more important match against . . . I still cringe when I think about it, not because I failed to score, but because, mysteriously, I didn’t even try. I sometimes believe all of my life is captured in that moment.
The truth is that, much as I loved sports, I only really loved them in an informal setting — pickup games rather than the real thing. A “serious” soccer match between two rival schools on a proper field with 11 uniformed players on either side, a referee and a few bored spectators freezing on the touchline (parents never went near these things back then, thank God), was never as much fun as playing three-a-side in a concrete corner of the schoolyard.
ThatI could do for hours and hours of sheer mindless bliss — “mindless” being the operative word. I was never so content as when functioning on pure instinct, all thought forgotten. Likewise the lengthy sessions of what we called “hand tennis” played over a small wooden playground fence, “sword-fighting” with 12-inch rulers rather than sabers, and “boxing” with open palms. And then there was always Ping-Pong — the perfect example of a sport that no one can quite take seriously. And thus the perfect sport for me. It was all pure, unadulterated happiness. In a word, childhood. It was only when I was 17 or so, and got to play for a senior team, with spartan training drills and grim coaches and snarling captains, that I discovered I didn’t like soccer nearly as much as I thought I did. Like Dylan Thomas, I wound up on the Second XI. Only, in my case, I wasn’t the captain, and it wasn’t a metaphor either.
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