In the seventh grade at Martin Meylin Junior High in Lampeter, Pennsylvania, I lived for gym class. Sure, I loved industrial drawing, a class that taught me how to create perspective as well as paying attention to my craft. That teacher was a stickler for accuracy, and I loved it. That class also made me write in all capital letters and I quickly abandoned the carefully curated cursive I’d learned to begin writing in all caps.
I liked English well enough, too, because I liked writing. But I hated math, tolerated social studies and even learned some German at some point. I was a B student at best, but more often earned a C average to match my name. See, I also hated homework, and had some issues with ADHD. That made matters worse.
Beyond gym class and studies, there was a social network to cope with, and my only real goal in life beyond sports was getting girls to like me. Somehow I worked my way into the realm of the most popular kids and even got to attend some parties where we played Spin the Bottle. Every second of life was some sort of competition, it seemed.
In junior high, we got to go outside twice a day. Typically we’d play on the macadam area behind the school. There were several tetherball poles stuck into the asphalt, and there was a system to establish who got to play on what pole. Getting to play on the “A” pole was a sign that you were moving up in the world.
The eighth-grade kids typically dominated those A games. But as I honed my skills on the “lower courts” I developed a stinger of a serve that no one could return. I learned to drive the ball hard above the reach of the other player on the serve, then sent the ball even faster and higher with each strike of the tetherball on my side of the court. It was an unstoppable tactic as long as I hit that first serve correctly.
The A Game
Word got around that I couldn’t be beaten on the lower poles, so the invitation finally game to play the eighth-graders on the A court. Now, I’d built into one tough little kid from all those days playing tetherball in all sorts of conditions. If it rained, I loved it because I was unafraid to get wet and could absorb the sting with my hands. If it was hot outside, my endless endurance came in handy as most competitors would tire out.
That’s how it went from day-to-day and for a month or so. I kept on winning. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but that’s what really happened. I even ceased washing my hands to toughen them up. During that period my mother and father were so busy working they hardly had time to notice that their grittly little son was possessed of a working-man’s hands. The skin cracks were lined like sanskrit on a whale bone. My knuckles too. I could strike the tetherball hard and hardly felt it. I was, you might say, “all in” on tetherball.
If it happened that someone actually caught hold of my serve and sent it back in the other direction, my fighting spirit took over. I transferred the anger I’d previously directed toward punching others in fights into striking that tetherball. It was cathartic, wild, and I was obsessed with winning.
Having worked all the way through the eight-grade players that wanted to challenge me, a set of familiar faces began showing back up in the line. All were equally determined to claim that they’d beaten the upstart 7th-grader Chris Cudworth. Eventually, it got tiresome and stressful to keep up the win streak.
Are you not entertained?
One of my classmates joined me in the mission to prove we were the two toughest tetherballers in the school. He ceased washing his hands as well. On the way out to the playground, we’d compare knuckles as we walked out to the courts. We smiled in the knowing way fellow warriors do. If we went down fighting, that’s all we cared about. Perhaps that’s why I like movies like Gladiator with Russell Crowe. He starred as General who turned into a slave, a slave who turned into a gladiator, and a gladiator who challenged (and killed) an Emperor. To me, that plot is not about being an underdog. It’s about recognizing that you were never a sorry sort in the first place. You need to be determined espite how other people try to make you feel, or seek to control you. Then you go out there and do your best. And realize that often you’ll be quite misunderstood, about which Maximus screamed after slaying an entire arena of gladiators. “Are you not entertained?”
Tired of battle
Yet even eager warriors tire of battle. And as the weather started to warm in spring and the baseball season beckoned, I wanted to be rid of the tetherball streak. I’d had enough of the pressure of having to win every day. The other kids were mad at me anyway. They told me I was a “court hog.” That didn’t feel good at all.
One day I walked out with Ed and turned to him and said, “I might try to lose today.” He stopped for a second and said, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “This has gone on long enough. I kind of proved myself. The grass is getting green and I want to play baseball now.”
The trick, I felt, was to lose to a player good enough to possibly beat me but not make it obvious I was trying to lose. Nor did I want to let some cocky jerk beat me with the possibility that he’d never let me live it down. So I looked down the line and chose a kid that I liked well enough to lose to. When he came up to play, I purposely didn’t look him in the eye, but gave the ball a lower arc when I struck it and sure enough, with a quick response he sent it back my way.
It happened far faster than I’d have liked, but after two volleys he got that ball going faster and high enough that I could not return it. When the ball wrapped around the top of the post a giant cheer went up on the playground.
“Cudworth lost at tetherball!” someone yelled.
I walked off pretending to be mad but secretly I was relieved beyond belief. Ed met me shortly after. He’d lost as well that day, but never told me if it was on purpose. We stood out at the edge of the playground where a few people came out to console us, but we both just smiled and said thanks.
The next day I brought my baseball mitt to school and ran out to play 500 with the rest of my baseball buddies. A few mentioned the whole tetherball thing, but I ignored them and smacked my hand in the mitt softened with Neatsfoot oil. Then I stood there smiling at the fact that I’d washed my hands the night before. They didn’t need to be so tough to catch and throw a baseball. I’d learned that the will to win at any cost really did have a price. But you can trade it in.
Death smiles at us all
I think about the quote that captured the spirit of Maximus in the movie Gladiator: “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”
When we lose at something it can feel like a small death. But when we accept losing because it is part of life or even embrace losing as a means to move beyond our present circumstance, that is smiling back at death. It’s hard to admit, but that’s a lesson most of us have to learn time and again. It certainly was the case with my distance running career, where a win one week was no guarantee of a win the next. As the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last victory.
Yet it is also true that we are only as good as what we learned from the last loss. We live sometimes because we choose not having to win all the time. That’s an important moral lesson in the present age, and for all times.