Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Importance of Not Being Good

I once had another mother say to me that she would only allow her children to participate in sports and activities that they were "good at."

I thought about that this weekend as I was playing tennis with my family. Tennis is not something I am "good at." It is, in fact, something I am "bad at." Maybe not as bad as I am at singing karoke, but close. One of my eyes is much more nearsighted than the other. I needed glasses at least by age 10, when I started having to sit in the front of the class to see the board, but didn't get them until age 17, which means I grew up without any depth perception. When a moving object came toward me I couldn't track it at all. I either threw up my hands in self-defense, or I ducked.

I still do that sometimes. However, sometimes I hit the ball. Sometimes I even hit it squarely and well--I won't go so far as to say I put spin on the ball, but sometimes I win points, and it feels like an absolute miracle. The fact that I can judge where that little yellow sucker is in space--amazing.

The fact that my daughter plays on her high school tennis team is more amazing still. My husband played recreationally in college and graduate school. My son only plays during family mixed doubles, but his years of baseball usually stand him in good stead. We play something that more or less looks like tennis, the four of us, and I'm really happy about it.

Lately I've had a lot of people ask if my daughter is going to play tennis in college, on a college team. When I say she's not nearly good enough for that, they look shocked, as though I've said something awful. I don't really understand why. She plays nearly every match for a pretty good high school team; she works hard and has fun, and it amazes me, really, how well she can hit the ball, and how tough-minded she is, how she never, ever gives up and how she's learned to stay calm under pressure. She likes her teammates. She's having fun. She won't compete at the college level, but she'll have had all these good experiences in high school.

Because I'm a writer, sometimes parents come up to me dragging their child who loves to write, who's always writing stories or poems or fan fiction or what have you, and the parent thinks their child has talent, which they probably do, and the parent wants to know what advice I can give or strings I can pull to get the child, you know, published. I've noticed two things about these encounters. One, it's never the child asking me how to get published. Two, the parents are always disappointed by my response.

Because I tell them that their child probably can't be published by a mainstream publisher. Sometimes it happens, sure--S.E. Hinton being the obvious one--but so rarely as to be almost never. When you submit to a mainstream publisher, you are competing for a finite number of slots in the publisher's list against every other writer out there. You are not competing against other students. You are, to be blunt, competing against me. And I have been working at the craft of writing for much longer than anyone's child, simply because I'm 47 instead of 17. The parents could invest a couple of thousand dollars in self-publishing their child's book, but I argue strongly against that, too, not because all self-published books are bad (though, truthfully, most are), and not because the book won't make a profit (it won't) but because the parents are taking something that right now is play for their child, and turning it into work. Parents are saying that their child's activity only has value if they get paid for it.

Middle school--high school--is too soon for that. It's time for play, for the intense enjoyment of doing something either well or badly, for experimenting, for taking baby steps toward mastery. Turning it into work takes the joy away.

So when I tell people my daughter isn't good enough to play tennis in college, they look shocked, but she looks grateful. She knows how good she is, and how good she isn't; she knows she's enough for her father and for me. She and her brother beat my husband and I, four straight sets last weekend, which was disgusting except that I had a couple of really good shots in there. And at the net at the end of the match my daughter and I shook hands with our pinky fingers extended, then air-kissed both each other's cheeks, in the European style, because it amuses us, and we are only playing, after all.