Whack-a-Mole in Hades

Two years ago, I finally snapped.  I'd been coaching forensics and debate since my first year of full-time teaching (1991), and in early 2006, it became apparent that I couldn't do it any more.  Between the end of the school day and the start of practice, I would find myself sitting in a dark room in dread, trying to control my rapid breathing, all which made it fairly easy to realize that I badly needed a change.  Luckily, we were at that same time in need of someone to take over directing the winter Black Box play, so I told my headmaster, the drama department chairman, and my assistant coach that if someone else would take over the team, I would gladly take over directing the play.

I haven't had much call to wonder about the wisdom of that move, but this weekend I was able to consider my decision in some depth.  My former assistant, now the head debate coach, was needed for a physics contest in North Carolina, so I told him I could cover for him and take the team down to Hanover County yesterday.

First, however, I had to conduct Friday's practice.  I had forgotten how much a debate practice resembles a marathon session of Whack-a-Mole.  Each student has only a brief time to work with you, so you can't concentrate on any one thing for more than a few minutes before you must wrench yourself away and listen to another student, usually doing a completely different event, and offer him suggestions for improvement.  Take ANY extra time to make your critique more thorough and you delay not only the next student, but all the other students in the queue, which makes them even more insistent and needy when they finally do pop up into your field of view.  I began at 1:15, and finally chased the last student from my room just after 5:00, feeling as though I still needed at least another half-hour with each of them to provide any useful feedback.  My whacking arm was exhausted, and the moles were still percolating through the soil.

Then lo! for the first time since March of 2006, I woke up early on a Saturday, loaded a group of blazer-clad debaters onto a minibus, and drove east with the traditional behind-the-wheel breakfast of a Hardee's chicken biscuit.  It was as if nothing had changed at all.  The same women were manning the registration table at the school, and I was once again sent to judge Student Congress, the event where (if I may say so) I distinguished myself as a knowledgeable and scrupulous parliamentarian for over a decade.

The students were much as they were two years ago, too; many of them intellectually gifted, some of them possessed of extraordinary oratorical abilities, some carrying ambitions that short-circuited their sense of fair play.  Most didn't bother to give sources for the claims they made about the nation's problems, baldly making assertions that went largely unchallenged.  As debate goes, it was mostly alternating oratories, rather than actual argumentation.

The judge's lounge was especially bad.  Typically judges are provided with free food and drink that is at least plentiful, if not of superb quality, but this tournament managed to do neither.  When I arrived at around nine a.m., there was a dispenser of coffee, with a quart of fat-free half & half, eight or nine packets of Splenda, and about as many packets of sugar.  That was it for beverages, except for the two dozen eight-ounce bottles of water.  The only food was a single dray of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins, two small tubs of cream cheese, and a dozen bagels.  Ir was pretty lean as judges' breakfasts go, but I had luckily filled up at Hardee's, so all I really needed was my coffee.  I got two cups before it ran out; no more was ever made.

Lunch would be better, or so I hoped, but it turned out that no lunch was provided.  We were allowed to buy the hot dogs, canned drinks, and candy bars that were for sale in the competitors' lounge, but even the discount from $1.50 to 50 cents didn't make the hot dogs all that appealing.  During the thirty-minute break between Congress sessions I ate one anyway.

Once Congress wrapped up at about 2:30, I returned to the student lounge in the school cafeteria, where the only seating was on the flat round plastic discs attached to the tables.  If pressed to name the one unmitigated evil that public education has committed against our children, I would have to say it's making them sit on these things every day.  They're like some kind of torture implement designed by parakeet fanciers; there's no back support, and barely any butt support, so sitting on one for a single lunch period is awful, and sitting on one for an entire afternoon is almost procrustean. I tried to concentrate on my book, C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, so that I wouldn't notice my surroundings.

Awards were finally announced at 4:30, and I was happy to see several WFS students earn slots in the upcoming state tournament, but as I headed the minibus back into the evening's rosy conclusion, my happiness couldn't outweigh the overwhelming exhaustion I was feeling, an exhaustion that wasn't merely physical, but existential. I was floored by the realization that I used to do this regularly. I did this regularly for fifteen years.  I had always known it was a burden, but until I set it down, I never realized just how heavy, how exhausting, how unwieldy it really was.  If Sisyphus could ever have put aside his stone, this is how he would feel after pushing it up the hill once more, just for old times' sake.

My realization this February, then, is a wholly appropriate one for Black History Month:  Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I am free at last!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 10, 2008 12:19 PM.

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