Authored by Buck Cooper.
In 1960, The New Yorker published what I believe to be one of the most beautiful pieces of baseball writing ever written, John Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. If you have a soul, which means you probably love baseball, but even if you don’t (love baseball), which means your ensouledness is in serious question in my book) then this article will speak to you. It goes alongside Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four as something that I try to come back to year after year, particularly in the springtime as spring training begins, because of the joy of reading it. Though the entire article is worth your time, there is one particular paragraph that I anticipate with every reading. Here’s the most salient excerpt:
“My personal memories of Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, “W’ms, lf” was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5. He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose. I remember listening over the radio to the All-Star Game of 1946, in which Williams hit two singles and two home runs, the second one off a Rip Sewell “blooper” pitch; it was like hitting a balloon out of the park. I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman’s head and rose meticulously along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit. For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter’s myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”
Go back up there and read that again if you didn’t read it more than once on the first go round. It’s all that I love about baseball distilled into one paragraph about one player. It also happens to be a lot of what I believe about teaching distilled into one paragraph about baseball.
In the space below, I’ve done some strategic replacement that I think will help you begin to realize why this paragraph works for a part of me that isn’t a sports fan, but is a math teacher.
Teaching is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual classes is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that administrators feed upon but by teachers who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the a ha moment when you see a kid finally get it is not a myth, it is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money.
I’ve spent the last 21 years of my life worrying one way or another about how children learn science and math. I’ve failed A LOT. I’m not the Ted Williams of teaching, but thinking about Ted Williams has taught me a lot about how to think about this work. Williams cared about hitting the baseball, so much so that he wrote a book about the science of it. He cared so much about it that in the one season in which he failed the least (the 1941 season in which he hit .406, a feat which hasn’t been matched in over 80 years) he could have sat out of the two games that his team played on the last day of the season and would have gotten credit for hitting .400 because .3996 rounds up. Instead, he cared enough to go out and play both games of a doubleheader, putting the record on the line and going 6 for 8. And he managed to care even when his team wasn’t in contention, even when the season was effectively pointless. I want that kind of motivation for myself. I don’t want to be the unpleasant person that Ted Williams sometimes was, but I do want to do my job well. I think one of the keys to success in teaching and learning is learning how to manage your own sense of failure, especially because it entails recognizing the limits of what you can do and what you control.
A baseball season is 162 games long. A year of teaching is 180 days. Nobody wins all 162 games or all 180 days. In fact, most of the time, the best people in both of these endeavors either fail or feel like they failed a lot of the time. It’s caring enough to show up every day and give 4 or 5 good at bats or teach 2 or 3 good classes and knowing that you don’t control everything but care enough to be good at the things you can control that makes people good at both jobs. And that’s hard. It’s hard to care, as Updike says, on a hot August weekday in baseball when most of the season is done, when you might not be headed into the playoffs, but you still have this job to do. And it’s hard to care in late February or early May when the end seems remote or super close and you feel like you’ve done all that you can but the kids are still antsy, the math is still tough and there are a bunch of meetings to attend and papers to grade.
Finally, as Updike says about baseball, teaching is essentially a lonely game. It’s you and 20 kids in a room for a lot of the time. And they aren’t your peers. They also aren’t your children. And yet you’ve got to do something with them—ultimately you’ve got to figure out how to love them and how to love the thing that brings all of you together.
I realize this sounds terrible–that teaching is about caring and showing up to do a job that feels remote from its outcomes and that’s also a lonely business that entails managing your feelings around failure. Why in the world would anyone want to do it? Well, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I haven’t figured teaching out. I haven’t figured children out. I’m better than I used to be for sure, but I’m a long way from legendary. And now here I am, walking away from it, maybe permanently, maybe just for a few seasons. And I’m going to miss failing and caring and doing this often lonely work because I’ve grown to love it.