The Benefits of Being a Student

November 9, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Morgan Baker

Standing at the baseline, ready to serve my first tennis game since forever, I panicked. I’d had a strong serve through my 40s, but somewhere in my 50s, I’d lost it. No more aces. No more getting it over the net or even into the serving box. My friends on the opposite side of the net shared advice.

“Throw it up like a telephone pole.”

“Don’t hit it if it’s not in the right place.”

Over and over, I bounced the ball, looked at where I wanted to send it and tossed the ball to the side, behind me, too far in front of me, anywhere but straight up. I was impatient, hitting bad throws just to get it over with, smacking the ball in the wrong direction for fault after fault.

I was humiliated.

I have always been a powerful but inconsistent player. I’ve been playing tennis since I was about 6. I am now 63. That’s a lot of tennis. My mother, an avid tennis player and a menace on the court, made sure her kids knew how to hit the ball. I played against her in doubles a lot in my 30s and 40s. I beat her once. It was all mental. When I’m on, I’m quite good, but when I question myself, I bomb. I know what I’m supposed to do. But I don’t always execute that which I know. I psych myself out, a lot.

Much like tennis, I figured I’d done the best I could with my memoir about my empty nest, my dogs and my depression. No-one seemed interested in it and frankly, I was bored. I thought I knew how to write—and play tennis—and I just had to work harder. If I just kept doing it, something would click and I would bounce back from my inconsistent play, or my messy memoir. I would improve by osmosis. While tennis is physical and writing is creative, they both take practice and mental stamina. They are hard to walk away from. I couldn’t quit.

Someone suggested I take a tennis lesson.

As a life-long player, I thought lessons were self-indulgent. I didn’t see the value of spending money on myself. What, I wondered, could I learn from others that I didn’t already know?

Turns out, a lot. 

The tennis lesson was fantastic. Justin pointed out where I needed to be on the court and how to follow through with my forehand. He improved my volley game. I had to go to the ball, and punch through my volley. Now my balls were forceful and went where I wanted them to go.

When we got to serving, Justin stood next to me. “Now serve.”

“But I’ll hit you,” I warned.

“No, you won’t,” he said with confidence. He was right. I threw the ball up straight and whacked it across the net.

My serve was back. I took another lesson later in the week and practiced hitting the way I used to. My game was at its best again.

More than fixing my serve, tennis lessons built back my confidence, just like the online writing classes and workshops I’ve taken recently.

Funny how it’s easy to forget I might need a teacher, when I am a teacher whose job it is to encourage and inspire writers. I suggest they write even when the output feels bad, so they have something to work on. My students practice their writing with prompts I give them, while I remind them that revision is key. To drive my point home, I require rewrites on all assignments. Sometimes, however, I forget my own lessons.

Once I permitted myself to be a student again, I was able to experiment, to take risks, to stretch my skills. Classes, retreats, readers and editors encouraged me to try something new with my work, just as Justin—himself a grad student in History—showed me new ways to serve.

If my tennis could improve, I thought, maybe it was time to revise the memoir. I rewrote and restructured. I made sure the point of the memoir was highlighted and not buried like before. Just because we are proficient in something doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it—or even, sometimes more importantly, feel more confident. As a student, I am reminded that we are always growing.

I did get injured again and had to pull out of tennis, and while I got a few bites on my memoir, no one has committed to it yet. But I am confident that when I do return to the court or send out my revised memoir, I will find my serve works; and my manuscript will be tighter, more honest, deeper.

As a student, I continually learn and improve. I am not stagnant. Thanks to Justin and my new writing community, I realize there is no finite time for improvement. It’s ongoing. Teachers need teachers, too.

_______________

Morgan Baker serves as Managing Editor of The Bucket and leads 6-member CNF workshops on Zoom; find out more at bymorganbaker.com. Her work has appeared in in Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, The Bark, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Motherwell, and more. She’s currently querying a memoir about the empty nest and depression.

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