I’m typing this with one hand because I jammed my left pinkie during an intramural basketball game. We got beat so badly the refs invoked the “mercy” rule. There were only five of us from the English department, and only one of us under 30. Our team name is ‘As I Lay Dunking.’
Last week was our first game and I yelled at the refs a lot. Later I felt deeply ashamed. These refs were just kids. They were training to be refs. They were terrible, but they were supposed to be learning. Instead of laughing off their calls and enjoying my remaining mobility, as I should have done, I stamped my foot with impatience and made exaggerated official gestures of the calls they missed: over the back! block! double dribble! I asked what? what? are you kidding? a lot. When someone on the other team stepped a few times before taking a shot and no travel was called, I re-enacted the young man’s steps, narrating my disbelief. The refs-in-training ignored me, as they should. After the buzzer sounded, I gathered my shoes in my arms, hurt and biting, yelling across the floor to where they had gathered in their striped shirts. Go to bed! I said.
This week it was my goal to not yell at teenagers so much. I did okay. Most of the kids were just having a nice time. They leaped around us like antelopes, delighting in their dominance. But one kid in particular started running up to me during every shot I took, screaming nonsense sounds. There was no reason to do this; he and his team were beating us, and I was missing my shots, anyway. Though he wasn’t assigned to me, he continued to jet my direction and scream in my ear. I ignored the kid’s behavior once. I ignored it twice. The third time, I had to walk away quickly. I could feel my heart sending drumbeats to all the emergency outposts. My temples, my lymph nodes, my stomach.
No one was following the rules, and no one was enforcing them. No one had enforced them last week, and no one would enforce them next week. Competent refs would have spoken to this kid, and if he’d continued, given him technical. But these were not competent refs. They were darlings who might have never seen a basketball game in their lives. Soon, I knew, I would lose control completely. I imagined yelling at him that if he didn’t stop, I would call his dad and tell him he was failing calculus. I could see the boy try to and fail to laugh, and his teammates laughing. The pleasure I would get in his humiliation both warmed me to my core, and disturbed me. I called a timeout on myself. I breathed.
Intramural games don’t matter, but rules do. Rigorous, attentive care by officials keep boundaries in place so we can enjoy the game within these boundaries. Last week I was so upset at the chaotic game, I cried. It wasn’t just the game, I told my friend Joshua, who was kindly listening on a bench as we were passed by taut people in expensive workout gear. This kind of protection, the protection the rules provide, seems to be eroding everywhere around me. There is a lack of agreement on a shared reality. The illusion of fairness is gone. A necessary shedding of false narratives in some cases, and in others, a crumbling definition of justice, reciprocity, responsibility. My classroom, my department, the University, the country. No one seems to be in charge. I used be able to play in blind faith, and I was privileged to play. I don’t get to anymore. Grown-ups have to show up, to be careful and rigorous, to keep order. Always for the sake of kids (even rude-ass kids like the screamer). Always for our fellow adults, who are children, too, at times. And I’m not blameless in the realm of irresponsibility. I almost lost control, and it wasn’t the first time. I have work to do about where I put my anger, how far I let myself go. I need to figure how not to weave anger so deeply into the pleasure of words. Anger is not a place to play, either.
After the timeout, the yelling-in-my-face boy came over and offered us oranges from a bag. We all looked at him, some of us still panting with effort. This juvenile, affectionate gesture could have been a peace offering, or it could have been mocking, I didn’t know. He was nervous. He tried not to look at me, but I found his eyes. I refused his offer, and as he walked away I pledged to never to come near him again. He didn’t quit screaming, but I kept my word. I ran away from him for both of us. I made a single basket. Small victories.