Back in the day, I played a mean game of golf, good enough to win tournaments and club championships and attract local attention. I worked at it, spending countless hours on the practice range, often under the tutelage of the club’s professional. I even worked at the golf course, in the pro shop, and on the golf course, with the maintenance crew. To a large extent, being a proficient golfer comprised my identity, for others as well as for me.
While I was in graduate school, I didn’t have the time or opportunity to play. For six years I didn’t touch a golf club. When I was finally able to take up the game again, I found that I had lost it. Flaws had crept into my swing and, despite incessant analysis, I was unable to recapture my former level of play. In a pattern that unspooled over many years, I’d think I’d discovered the problem, make the change, but found improvement elusive. I devoured books and magazines featuring golf instruction, took lessons, prowled golf websites to watch videos of professionals’ swings—all to no avail. I would have had better luck clicking my heels three times and wishing I were back in the Kansas of competent play.
The strange thing is that, despite my unsullied record of failure to diagnose and correct my swing, every time I stepped on to the first tee I felt I was on the cusp of rejuvenation. I’d think, “This is the day when it will all come together. Today, what was then will become what is now. This is the day my golf game will be reborn.” By the third hole, however, I had mentally checked out, consoling myself with the thought that at least I was getting some good exercise—or, in my more desperate moments, with the slogan I had once seen on the scorecard of a Baptist-owned course: “A closer walk with God,” although, in truth, it felt more like a loitering in Gethsemane. Actually, Mark Twain was more accurate: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” Still, the next time I played, I stood on the first tee, fully Galahaded, fully expecting on this foray to find the miraculous grail of my glory days.
And strange to say, miracles, at least of the micro variety, do happen. Three springs ago, while on the practice range, I discovered the problem that had plagued and beleaguered me. What I had lost, I found. Instantaneously, I began striking the ball more solidly, dead solid perfect off the sweet spot, launching it straighter and farther and at a higher trajectory than I had in many years. And on that day, the day when my long-expected renaissance had finally arrived, I drove home, put my golf clubs in a basement corner, covered them with a small tarp, and quit playing.
I have aspirations for myself. I like the pragmatist notion that meaning is use, body and thought in action. I do not seek to be a bystander to my life, irrelevant to myself. I make plans for the future. They carpenter our lives into an ordered unfolding; they hold an arm outstretched, palm upward, to resist the havocking churn and plunge, the mad ricochet, of events. I expect skills once acquired, to stay acquired, over the course of time, at least until they decline, as they necessarily must, with age. Until then, I go on going on.
That day on the practice range, I reclaimed the ability I had lost. It was enough. And so, I left playing golf behind.
I am excited at the beginning of every semester. I am sure that the work I have done to prepare my classes has refined them to the point of can’t-fail success. Having read up on best practices and the latest pedagogical research into student learning; having created new in-class activities sequenced and scaffolded to impart the skills necessary for student success on papers and tests; feeling certain that this cohort of students will display curiosity, will write clearly and comprehensively in prose polished by editing and proofreading, will be willing to read not just with texts but against and beneath them, will gladly entertain ideas that broaden their horizons rather than genuflect before those that validate and reinforce their preconceptions, will be open to making canyon-wide intellectual leaps that even Evil Knievel would envy, I approach each new class with radiant expectation. “This is the semester it will all come together,” I think; “this is the semester when students will embrace intellectual culture and experience a renaissance of wonder.”
And three weeks in, that radiant expectation has not just been dimmed; it has been dealt an eyeball kick and forehead blow. 4-G attention-spanned, smartphone-armed, discipled by the new dispensation testaments of Twitter and Facebook, students will not go gentle into the educational experience I have prepared for them. I realize that the majority of my students might touch an idea, but will not fondle it; that they are good at accessing and disseminating information, but cannot quite massage it into knowledge; that they will resist introspection and refrain from the difficult work of analyzing for assumptions, forecasting implications, and engaging in evaluating and synthesizing ideas. I realize that this semester, like past semesters, will be as frustrating as trying to eat a taco with a fondue fork.
I can feel myself hunkering and find my eyes scanning the surroundings for sandbags to pile up around me. Yet, I think, “OK, I’ll need to rework the architecture of the course once the semester ends.”
Perhaps I’m ensnared in a Nietzschean eternal recurrence: “the hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again,” he says, and evidently me with it. But I don’t think I love my fate that much, to the point of seeing all my planning haywired and hackysacked. Perhaps I need to renounce my affiliation with Emerson’s “party of hope.” Perhaps I suffer from optimism bias, projecting rosy faith into the future where it solidifies into expectation. Perhaps I pursue a fool’s folly, victimized by self-delusion, an apologist for an unrealistic thithered elsewhere. But whatever it is, it is necessary. Absolutely necessary.
I have aspirations for these young persons, aspirations that may involve me, certainly my children and grandchildren. I want them to know how to coax meaning from information. I want them to be minds in thrumming motion, celebrants of kinetic thought, acolytes of continual learning. I want them to realize that the world is not for loitering in but acting upon; that it is made, not given, and, thus, can be remade. And so, I remake my courses. I simply must believe, must expect, that this time, this time, it will indeed and in fact all come together.
And when it does, when it does, I will leave teaching behind.
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