At school I watch two guys in the gym. Our numbers are down because of the snow, so by the end of the day when we do basketball, there are just two guys looking to play while the others stay up in the classrooms doing I don't know what. It's a full court gym and these two station themselves at opposite ends to dribble, shoot, and mostly miss.
When I asked earlier if it made sense to do gym with just the two of them, they said absolutely. Well, one of them said, fuck yeah, but he's a work in progress. Each said that they could use the practice and workout. In days gone by I would be down there working out and practicing with them, getting them in a friendly game, but management decided it's a risk to have teachers on the court and my days of playing ball with the students are over. I really miss it as one thing that was good for all of us. C'est la vie.
Long ago when I was in high school we would sometimes get the good fortune of having Ed the gym teacher wheel a carriage of basketballs out, give the deep instruction for which he was known — "play" — and then go back to his office where I liked to imagine he drank. Guys would get games going, hole up on the bleachers, or head out back for a smoke. Kyle and I played one-on-one. I needed the practice.
Kyle's a doctor now. Back then he was a kid who could figure things out. We were okay ball players but weren't going to make the team. I figured I could take him, but lost most games against him. He figured out that I couldn't go left and my outside shot was unpredictable. He defended my right and stymied me. I could take him down low and keep it close, but I couldn't figure him out enough to beat him often.
He even told me the secret. "You always go right, man." Mild trash talk daring me to do something about it. I couldn't. I kept playing though and the games were tight. Over time I got better. So did Kyle.
These guys are still shooting and missing. They stop to catch their breath because they both smoke too damn much. But they stay at opposite ends. No one-on-one here. One guy is better than the other and the lesser one has a temper and gets too physical. I'd have to officiate the hell out of things. The real reasons they don't play a game is I'm not there to make it happen and they're scared to put themselves at risk.
I understand. Kyle was popular, smart, and regularly beat me. He didn't keep playing me out of kindness or friendship. We were high school boys trying to thump our chests. We weren't mean though or dangerous to one another. There was no real risk. His dad knew mine. We'd been in school together for years. We were having fun, enjoying the challenge.
These guys are getting really winded now. Sloppy and all over the place. I've watched them check each other out from across the court. They're suspicious. They live threatened lives. I'm sitting in the bleachers about halfway between them. Keeping an eye and ear out. In that same high school of mine I learned to touch type without looking. Look at me now, hitting all the right keys, monitoring PE at least as well as Ed ever did, and remembering the past.
I get told a lot that kids have changed. They're harder now. Isolated, angry, driven by the culture of the phone and the internet. Mostly I shrug when people say that. People tell me I'd have to be crazy to be a teacher these days, especially with these kids. Again I shrug. From up the hall I hear someone yell that buses are here. "Time to go," guys, I tell them. They take their last shots at opposite ends of the court, but I'm seeing Kyle winning by one point and the two of us walking back to the locker room. We're laughing about something and feeling good. There's none of the suspicion these two poor guys feel as they push headphones back on their ears, crank the music, keep their distance and go out into the world alone. I go back into the gym to get the key for the lights, switch them off, and in the darkness feel a little dizzy caught between then and now, light and dark, and my next challenge.