Teaching That Fizzles vs. Teaching That Sizzles

Exasperated dog running and trying to catch a ball.
Photo by B. Critchley

I could never catch a ball.

When you are a young guy, this inability destroys your self-esteem. And it doesn’t do much for your popularity with the other guys.

As far back as I can remember, there were people in gym class who would try to immerse us in their athletic wisdom. They had college degrees in “physical education”. I hated some of them and felt sorry for the rest.

“Keep your eyes on the ball.” They would say it repeatedly to the class in general and to me in particular, because I could never catch a ball. But the advice didn’t work. I thought I was keeping my eye on the wall.

I saw this advice as a personal insult. In my early teens while I was still hearing this sage wisdom in gym class, I was studying Einstein‘s theory of gravitation, and learning the mathematical theories needed to understand it, such as Tensor Calculus and Riemannian Geometry.

I was reading Plato and Saint John’s Gospel in the original Classical Greek, self-taught. I was studying the medieval philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas in Latin, mostly self-taught.

But when I went to gym class, they told me the way to catch the ball or hit the ball was to “keep my eyes on the ball.” Really? I guess they didn’t think I was smart enough to figure that out on my own.

Then everything changed overnight. One day when I was about 25, I took my first tennis lesson. The instructor was maybe as tall as 4‘10“. He had very dark skin, was rail thin, and had an inscrutable accent. He was from Sri Lanka. And he was a real teacher.

During the first class he whispered one sentence that changed my life–at least when it comes to catching and hitting balls. He didn’t tell us to keep our eyes on the ball. I guess he gave us credit for understanding that much already. Instead he told us, “When you’re trying to hit the ball, watch which way the stitches are spinning.” Lightning struck.

This is not something you need to know as a beginning tennis player, but down the road it makes a difference whether the ball has topspin, backspin, or sidespin.

What he was doing with his advice, at least in my case, was showing me how to keep my eyes on the ball. This one sentence fixed my problem.

Before that I usually couldn’t catch anything, not just balls. If a guy threw his keys across the room at me and asked me to move his car, I would invariably miss them and have to pick them up off the floor. If I was playing softball, I would miss even balls coming right toward me. Not only would I have to bend down to pick them up, but first I had to chase them pathetically.

By sixth grade I was big enough, strong enough, and a fast enough runner to allow me to excel in football and other tackle sports. I was one of the best at tackling guys and the very best at not getting tackled. But until then all the sports seemed to involve catching balls, which I just couldn’t manage. So I avoided sports as long as I could as much as I could.

But after that first tennis lesson, I could catch as well as most people. And all it took was one sentence–provided it was the right sentence.

My point is this. Teachers in all fields should spend most of their preparation time finding those sentences that change their students. And students should spend their time finding that kind of teacher.

Photographer, digital imager, writer, philosopher.