I’ve done almost every sport I can think of for almost as long as I can recall. So I’ve had a lot of coaches. And my best coach was my eighth grade math teacher, Mrs. Lane.
She scared me witless. She scared everyone witless. She wasn’t mean. She didn’t yell. But you knew that she knew everything. Especially about you.
She wore a different knockoff Chanel suit to school every day and had high-fashion oversized black-framed glasses. She spoke in the snappy cadence of an actress in a 1940s romantic comedy. Her white hair was carefully coiffed. I never saw a strand out of place. Nothing was ever out of place. The desks in our classroom (her classroom) were always in perfect rows. Even the wastebaskets were orderly. At the end of class, she would assign one of us to march down the rows with the wastebasket, and we would lay our scratch paper in the bottom of the basket, flat.
One Wednesday in November, as the wastebasket made its way down the aisles, my friend Dave threw a balled-up sheet of paper into the basket from a distance of about four feet. A dunk, really. Tim, the kid holding the basket, froze. The room froze. Dave’s eyes darted back and forth. We held our breath. Mrs. Lane sat at her desk, impassive.
What to make of this breakdown in the natural order? What next? Would gravity reverse itself? Curtis balled up his paper and tossed it in. Nothing. Then Terry. A joyful blizzard of paper wads ensued. I wadded up my scratch paper and, with the confident innocence of a nun walking past a police station, put up a beautiful shot from about 10 feet out.
The instant it left my fingertips, Mrs. Lane stirred. In that clipped Hollywood cadence, she said, flatly, “Mr. Wilcoxen.”
She got up from her desk. I had the sensation of having almost fallen backward off a ladder. I was sweating.
“Nice shot,” she said, walking toward me, high heels clicking on the linoleum.
I almost fainted with relief. The room exhaled. Chatter and laughter began. She asked Tim for the wastebasket and fished out my ball of paper. She handed it to me and walked to the back of the room. She set the wastebasket down about a foot from the wall in the corner. Relief turned to dread. She wasn’t done.
“It was such a nice shot that I’d like to see some more,” she said. “Get up, Mr. Wilcoxen, and join me.”
We walked to the door. “I’d like to see 10 more shots, from here. Every time you miss, you owe me one hour of detention.”
The class buzzed with murmurs. Mrs. Lane did not silence them. Any kid who’s ever thrown a balled-up sheet of paper knows that there’s barely enough weight in such a missile to get it all the way across the room, let alone accurately.
I squeezed the ball as tightly as I could and took my first shot. Enough distance, but wide left. The class groaned. One hour of detention. Next shot: short. Two hours. My third shot dropped in the center of the basket, and the class roared as if I’d hit a walk-off home run at Fenway Park. Mrs. Lane did not blink.
I made three shots and missed seven. Seven hours of one-on-one with Mrs. Lane. I did not question the fairness of my sentence. I simply accepted the fact that I’d never be happy again.
It has taken me nearly half a century to figure it out, but here’s why Mrs. Lane was my best coach: I was new to Connecticut, having moved up from Miami that summer. I’d made only a few friends. I wore Florida sneakers and Florida jeans. I was never dressed warmly enough for the weather. In short, I was a little different in a community that didn’t celebrate being a little different.
Here’s what happened: Each shot I hit made me a bit of a hero. Each shot I missed made me a bit of a hero. I think Mrs. Lane knew what she was doing.
I was also significantly behind in math. I was an A student, but I’d been able to hide what I didn’t know. By now Mrs. Lane had discovered what I didn’t know. I couldn’t hide it from her.
How many hours of tutoring did I need to get up to grade level? Exactly seven.
Day One of detention was Thursday.
“Come in,” she said. “Pull up a chair.”
I did. Without looking up from her papers, she slid a plate of cookies across her desk. “You’re probably hungry,” she said.
I was always hungry, two- or three-sandwich hungry, so I took a cookie. “Thank you,” I said.
There was a plate of cookies on her desk every afternoon for the next six afternoons. They were homemade, and they were delicious.
I wish I could say we grew close that week, but I learned nothing of her private life, nor she about mine. But I did learn math. Each detention was tailored to address and remediate a weakness that she had perceived. It was thrilling to finally understand the things that I’d pretended to know. I grew comfortable with her.
And on that eighth afternoon, I felt a little lost as I kicked my way through piles of fallen leaves, all the way home.