Day 1: The First Day of School

It’s normal for me to be somewhat nervous on the first day of classes. Every semester it happens. Even though I’ve been at this for twenty years, even when I’m teaching a course I’ve taught successfully in the past, a small bud of apprehension implacably unfolds over the last days leading up to the new semester into a hideous blossom of full-body anxiety.

Somehow, even though I’m the professor, I’m the mature adult, and I’m the expert in the subject, a roomful of adolescents in sweatpants can make me feel like a loser and an idiot. The feeling only worsens as, going over logistical matters like my office hours, the syllabus, and course policies, the students sit immobile with blank expressions on their faces. I’ve bored them already. They don’t want to be here. I’m a fraud and they know it. They’re growing impatient with me. I crack a pathetic joke, then self-consciously mock my own attempt at humor. I’m growing smaller, erasing myself. I’m starting to glow red, warm, even the sweat that starts to form seems to mock and tease me: as if it’s deciding whether or not it’s going to start to pour off me, as if there were any question. The page swims before my eyes, then steadies, before the sight of my trembling hands leads my gaze to dart anxious around the room, like a terrified bird looking for a safe perch. There is none to be found.

All this is normal. It’s unpleasant, unavoidable (it seems), and temporary. Before the first session is even over, by the time I’ve gotten into the “why am I teaching this course and what I care about” part of the first day, I feel in my groove. I see most of the students begin to respond, leaning slightly forward, life returning to their eyes and expression. They may not be sure whether I know my stuff, but I know they are responding to my frankly expressed enthusiasm for the topic. And that is enough for me for the time being.

But I wasn’t prepared for the horribly intensified version of all this that I experienced yesterday in the first day of “Cultures of Basketball.” On the contrary, I had thought, teaching this should be like falling off a log. Moreover, I’d already received such positive responses for the course, not only from the many interested students, but from other, more experienced basketball bloggers whose work I had long followed and admired in anonymity. Actually teaching the course, I felt sure, would only enrich both the substance and the credibility of my own presence on the hoops internets. After all, I reasoned, nerves or not, I know I’m an effective teacher and basketball – well, basketball is home.

I arrived about ten minutes early to class, up on the second floor of the old building in Michigan’s East Quad. I’d never taught in this room before and was hoping to get settled in so as to avoid any clumsy physical maneuvers in front of the students. The windowless door was closed, but I could hear the drone of Spanish students repeating their first-day exercises from behind the heavy wood. I would have to wait. Probably the boy sitting on the stairs not far from the door, checking his phone, is in the class. I wonder if he knows I’m the teacher. Do I look old and uncool enough for that to be obvious? It’s cold and snowy outside and I’m bundled up, but now in this cramped second floor hallway, I’m getting really, really hot. Steaming hot. Why isn’t he wearing winter clothes?

I don’t know what to do. I can’t bear to stand outside the door of my own classroom for the next ten minutes while students pile up in the hallway. I walk casually down the corridor and turn the corner. A water fountain: I get a drink. This corridor is all dorm rooms so there’s no open classroom where I can just sit down and safely take off my hat, coat, scarf and gloves. I get another drink. I stand still. I walk back to my corridor, vainly hoping that the class before has let out early. The door is still closed. Now more students are there waiting. They know I’m the professor. It’s ridiculous that I can’t get into this room. Only an asshole gets to class so early.

I walk back down the stairs toward the main office. Another water fountain. I get another drink. Time is not moving. I pretend to look at the papers pinned to a bulletin board outside the office. I’m unbearably hot. My scarf is scratching and tightening around my neck. I have to get outside. I stagger to the exit and step into the undifferentiated gray of the quad and desperately gulp the cold air. I turn to go back in. The door is locked behind me. Fucking security protocols. Who cares about the students who live here? I have to fish out my ID card to swipe open the lock. I hate this. I do it.

I trudge back up the stairs, where several of the students are already talking to each other, forming a gang that will first ignore me and then mock and bully me. They lower their voices when they see me. How do they know I’m the professor? Why don’t they say hi to me? I hate this. I try to smile and say hello, but I think it doesn’t come out.

Or else they are deliberately ignoring me. They’ve already won. Blessedly the door opens and the jackholes from the previous class file out, an interminable line that deliberately blocks my access to the room. I wait, thinking the last one has finally cleared out, when one more straggles through, pausing, a dingle berry clinging to the classroom.

Finally, the space is mine. I’m horrified by how small the room is. I run ahead of the students, toward the front of the classroom in front of the white board, where there’s a long-ish desk that I can put my stuff on and hide behind. I tear off my gloves, coat, and scarf. I take off my hat, then feel self-conscious of my shaved head and put my hat back on. Will I be cooler with the hat or without it? If I was Ray Allen it would be okay to take the hat off. If I was Ray Allen it wouldn’t matter if I had the hat on or off. If I was Ray Allen I wouldn’t be here at all. Will I be trying to hard if I leave it on? I usually wear it around the house, so that would be the most natural thing. Insane logic because there’s nothing remotely natural about this moment. Every thought doubles back on itself in a horrible Escheresque moebius strip of self-consciousness. I take the hat off. I look at it. My head is already glowing and hot. I put the hat back on.

The students begin to take their seats. I can see that rows are going to form because it’s a small room and nobody wants to move the chairs. Lazy bastards, I think. No, I think, they’re just shy and nervous, like me. They’re nothing like me, I say to myself, look at them. Impulsively, I rush out from behind my long desk and start to arrange the remaining chairs into an oval, hoping that they’ll see my behavior and copy it. Nobody moves. It’s so hot in this room. Thank god I’m wearing a sweater or they’d see me sweating through my shirt. Is that why it’s called a sweater, I wonder, but I find that I’m turning to the students and asking them to arrange their chairs. “You want to do the circle thing,” one boy asks me, and I wonder if I’ve said anything at all and if so, what exactly. “Yeah,” I say as coolly as possible, “the circle thing.”

I beat a hasty retreat back behind my desk and start to shuffle some papers around, some of which is actually practical. The basketball players begin to arrive. I can tell because they are unusually tall, and also because I’ve seen some of their pictures before. Some of them are not only talented players in their own right but have fathers who had fabulous pro careers. But I’ve already decided that at least for now I will pretend that I don’t know who they are. I feel this will protect me, and I tell myself it is more respectful of their status as student-athletes. In this room, they should be treated – and should want to be treated – like all the other students, who aren’t 6-6 and the closest thing to gods the rest of us in this room will probably ever encounter. I don’t look at them or speak to them.

Instead, after the first handful of ball players come in and find a seat, I leave my things and go back out into the hall to get another drink. As I turn the corner back into my corridor, I see the one student in the class that I have taught before. He shouts down the hallway to me “Ya-Go!” and gives me a warm hug. I’m grateful to him. He’s so spontaneous and at ease. He should be teaching the class. I will cling to him.

I go back in. The classroom seems full already but as I quickly scan the room, I see that only 15 of the 24 students enrolled are even in there yet. The basketball players are so big! Especially in a group like this. The room is tiny, like a play house or something out of Lewis Carroll – it is shrinking and impossibly hot. I ask a player if he can open the window behind him. He is very agreeable, gets up and fumbles with the window for a minute, unable to open it. He seems embarrassed. I feel a surge of confidence. Finally, he gets the window open and the drapery starts to billow madly towards me, whipped by the sadistic wind. The player exclaims and snatches the drapery – surprisingly quick hands for such a big guy, Jesus no wonder I never played beyond high school – and then reins it in and ties it up behind his shoulder.

Not everybody is here and it’s not even time to start yet but I just can’t bear to wait any longer. So I mumble that I’m going to begin to go through the roll call even though it’s stupid to do so before everyone has arrived. I begin to go down the list. A couple of names in, everything going smoothly, I check off the names, when more students walk in, a mix of players and civilians. I hate myself for making this distinction. I feel a rising panic as I watch them try to find places to sit in this tiny pathetic classroom. It’s my fault this classroom is so small, and growing smaller, and that they don’t fit in it comfortably. A real professor would have a real classroom.

I get to the first name I know to be a player and I am careful to pronounce the full name, even though I know he goes by the shorter version.

Indeed, I pretend to look up and around the room as though I don’t’ know who he is, waiting to hear the response that he is present and that he prefers to be called by the shorter version of the name. This occurs. I make the annotation on my roster and check him as present and move on down the list. I wonder if I could score on him in a game of one-on-one. I bet I could, but maybe not if he really tried. I can’t believe I’m thinking about this. I’m completely transparent. Who was I kidding with this course? I’m little more than a scrub and a loser who happens to have gamed the system such that he can force the cool kids to be around him – like the rich kid who has his own car and gets his license before everyone else. Oh god. I push these thoughts back down my throat into the roiling pit of my stomach.

I finish the names and introduce myself. I write my name on the white board: “Yago,” I write. And I say it, and I hate it and am horribly embarrassed that this is my name. I recall being a boy and informing my father that I wanted to change my name to “Jim Kiick.” I knew that my full name “Santiago” meant “Saint James” and so I thought that “Jim” would be a reasonable alternative to the mortifying “Yago-Yoga-Yogurt” (Yoda would come later). I added “Kiick” because the Miami Dolphins, for whom he played, had just gone undefeated and I thought that being a football player and having the last name “Kiick” was pretty much the most amazing coincidence ever and as sure a sign of intelligent design as there could be. The humiliating sense of feeble difference my name always caused rushes to me helpfully as I write on the white board: “Yago” “Santiago” “Professor Colás” – “you can call me whichever of these you prefer.” I wish I could teach this class without having to say my name because already they are thinking that I’m weird and have no business in America, let alone pretending to know about sports.

I tell them when and where my office hours will be held (in a nearby café). One of the players nods. I fantasize that he thinks it’s cool that I hold my office hours in a café. I cling to this for the next few minutes. I turn to the course organization and requirements. These are printed on a syllabus I have in front of me. I am very proud of this syllabus. It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to put it together and I even agonized over the choice of font. The course structure is simple but flexible, the requirements well-thought through and challenging but fair. I know it like the back of my hand. This is, for the time being, my masterpiece.

I begin to review it and I realize that it is impossibly complex and probably incoherent. It is much longer than the usual syllabus (because of the beautiful structure I created) and so I made it available to the students electronically ahead of time rather than xeroxing 24 copies of it (I felt ashamed at its length). It would be an enormous aid to me if they had a copy with them at this moment. Most do not.

I apologize. Exactly the way that I apologize when someone who is not looking where they are going runs into me on the street (that is, if I haven’t successfully avoided them my altering my path having already carefully scanned the sidewalk ahead for wayward walkers). I tell them that I know it was long and that it’s okay if they didn’t print it out.

I explain the requirements, confusing myself and certain that I’m confusing the students. They look blankly back at me and I fill those blank spares with bemused looks of disdain for the psycho loser who has painstakingly built this hideously complicated structure and then presented it to the world with delusional pride. I don’t understand my own syllabus or the rationale behind the different assignments. I know there is one, but it’s like a word on the tip of my tongue: I just can’t seem to find it as I stand, boiling hot and wishing I could take my hat off, in front of this roomful of teenagers.

There is a disaster with the textbook. The players, one of them explains, don’t have it because the bookstore lists it as “optional” and therefore not covered by their scholarships. I feel hot: angry and apologetic at the same time. Really? I’m thinking, Really? You couldn’t shell out the $20 for the book anyway? But then I’m also thinking what do I know of their circumstances and why should they have to shell it out? They are on scholarship after all. And what’s up with the bookstore? I told those assholes that it was required. But all I say is thank you for telling me and I’ll take care of it. Others don’t have the book yet because they ordered it on Amazon and it hadn’t been delivered. I will take care of that too, I say, by scanning the very few pages they have assigned for Thursday.

I quickly move on. I begin to talk about my aims for the course, my excitement and sense of gratitude for the opportunity to teach it. I struggle to convey to them the way in which thinking about the game can be a way to think about everything, about the stories that we consume and produce all the time in relation to the game and about how those stories are shaped by and in turn shape such social and cultural categories as race and gender, but also physical categories such as speed, strength, and size, and aesthetic categories such as style and beauty and grace.

I’m dribbling the ball against a frenetic full-court man-to-man press. I know this feeling. It’s all on me to get the ball up the court.

Opponents’ hands are everywhere, enemy jerseys in every direction. They’re even slapping at me, but the refs don’t see it. Each dribble of the ball feels tenuous and fragile, I have control but just barely. I’m getting angry, or is it determined? It gets hard to tell the difference. I just want to get it over with, to get the ball across the half-court line and pass it to someone else for Christ’s sake.

I try to meet the gaze of the ball players as I speak of a game that has probably been at the center of their lives and that, in some sense at least, they know much more about than I do. I remind myself silently that I know some things they do not know. I remind myself that it is okay that they know some things I do not know. Somehow, I find myself saying these things aloud to the class. I may have shit myself. I feel I’ve exposed myself for sure. I am a comedian, a clown, a buffoon and nobody is laughing. But in the time it takes me to feel all that and to get ready to close back up into a tight ball of uptight nerves, I see a smile. It is a ball player. I honestly don’t remember which one or his name, just his face. But there is a smile. And through some mysterious process I cannot understand, I shift gears entirely.

Rather than speak abstractly about the kind of thinking I want them to start to do in the class, I say, I’m going to give them a couple of examples. I tell them how I used to play the point in high school. What style our team played, how our coach was a Bobby Knight fanatic and how I became proud of my ability to distribute the ball, to understand the needs and tendencies of my teammates, to grasp and anticipate the subtle dynamics of the game. Then I told them how how I’d come to understand many of fears, impulses and choices in life off the court in terms of an overheated logic of the “coach-on-the-floor-pass-first” kind of point guard. I told them that I’d recently started playing again in St. Louis. Not very well I told them, but not badly either. I explained that I found that I liked shooting and driving and creating my own shot just as much as, if not more than, I liked passing. Moreover, I said, I found that I was good at these things. And I wondered where that came from and then had remembered that before I settled into my pass-first point guard identity I had been more of a creative, self-expressive point guard, that this too was part of my identity. That I want to get mine in life as well. I say that they can see then how something that happens on the court, the basic components of the game – passing vs. shooting – have everything to do with everything in life off the court.

By this point, everyone in the classroom is paying attention. Some of the ball players are nodding. I tell them another story: about the difference between playing pickup ball at the campus recreation center at the University of Michigan and playing at the outdoor public park in St. Louis. I recall for them the silent, joyless, business-like efficiency with which the middle-class white college students played in the rec building and I contrast it with the talkative, time-wasting exuberance of the poor African-American kids (and grown men my own age) that I play with in St. Louis. “Why,” I asked my class, “were the students at the rec center not talking any shit?”

I said “shit.” The entire room relaxed, even the ball players laughed. “Ooooh, Professor said ‘shit’!” I had them. For that moment, at least, I had them. And, having gotten them, I added “it is a mystery to me why I feel so alien among a group of players who fit my own experience, demographically and culturally speaking, so closely: white, middle-class, Big Ten college students who probably played decently in high school but weren’t good enough to go on. And, why, conversely, I felt so at home on the playground, among a group of people with whom, superficially speaking at least, I had so little life experience in common. This, I said, has to do with race, class, gender, but it has to do with many other things as well, things you perhaps need a finer toothed comb to untangle, if they can be untangled at all. Perhaps they cannot be fully understood. Perhaps I won’t know why this is so, I admit, but I’m interested in exploring this sort of experience and this sort of question in the course.”

Now I’m hitting my stride, in the zone. I’m draining jumper after jumper. It doesn’t matter if it’s a catch-and-shoot or a pick-and-roll. It doesn’t matter if it’s long three or a step back in traffic.

The hoop is an ocean and everything I throw at it goes in. Opponents are shaking their heads, throwing different defenders at me. They are starting to bicker, which casues my teammates, who are looking for me on every play, to whoop it derisively.

Now that I have them, I return to the requirements and I find myself surprised to be speaking with earnest confidence. If it was practical to do so, I say, I would make your grade 100 % dependent on the intensity and effort of your engagement with me, with the course materials, with your classmates, and with your own potential. But that’s not practical, so I’m doing the next best thing that I know how. These requirements are tools I’ve devised to help facilitate a learning experience. I expect you to try using them and I expect you to be responsible for your own education and to inform me if they are not working for you so that together we can devise other tools. What I will not accept, I say and I can’t believe I’m speaking with such command in my voice, is that you simply ignore the requirements or give them only a half-hearted effort.

I want them, I realize, to feel like they are part of a team. But it’s not just because it’s a course on basketball or because there are athletes in there. I realize, rather, that this is the way I always teach and it is the part of my teaching, of my professorial spiel, in which I feel confident; probably because it is what I most want and most believe in. But it’s disorienting and exhilarating to find how that coach-like, motivational discourse fits the students – and not just the players in this class – in this class like a glove. For these moments, I know, we are speaking a deep common language.

“We have an opportunity here,” I say with excitement, “to do something really exceptional: not only to spend time in a college classroom thinking and talking about a game we love, but to do so in a way that helps us all to grow as human beings and that, I say, is what being in a college humanities classroom, whether you are a student or a professor, should be all about.”

I should’ve stopped there, but I suddenly grew self-conscious – like suddenly thinking about a jump shot after making ten in a row: it clangs off the rim and what seemed like magic now seems gone and pedestrian to boot. I think I rambled on for a few more minutes, repeating things I’d already said. The students understandably returned to their glazed state. The moment had passed. There was nothing more to say for today.

It’s weird how teaching and learning, for me, happens that way, how it has its own temporality: sometimes whole semesters seem packed into an instant; sometimes several hours are needed to unfold some simple point. Yesterday, the students realized it before I did (though I’m not certain that they experienced their realization as such – more likely they just experienced a loss of interest). Either way, I caught up with the students’ realization and stopped abruptly: “There’s nothing more to day for today. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

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