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“This game is sure confusing…”

The first time I ever umpired a Little League game, I was scared out of my wits. I hadn’t really had a chance to review, much less memorize, the hundred-some-page rule book that the league had given me. I knew that one of the constant truths of baseball is that “every game, you see something you’ve never seen before,” and usually, in those situations, there’s an umpire right at the center, the focus of all the attention. That was what I figured was going to happen. I would be the focus of all the attention. Every pitch I called, every close play, every muffed fly ball or fair-foul call or slide-tag sequence, I had to be there, and everyone would be looking at me for the ENORMOUS, GAME-DECIDING, LIFE-CHANGING DECISION. Young lives would be shaped and perhaps even scarred by what I did on that field. What was I going to do? Why had I taken on this duty?

In a nervous fit, I emailed my friend Shawn, a coach in the league, and the person who brought me on to umpire. “I don’t know if I can do it,” I said. “I’ve barely had a chance to look at the rule book.”

Look, he said in so many words. Lighten up.

What you’re going to be doing mainly, he continued, is calling balls and strikes. No, actually, to clarify that, what you’re going to be doing mainly is calling BALLS. “These are 8, 9, 10 year old kids out there on the mound. They really don’t do a great job finding the strike zone. Get used to calling ‘BALL ONE, BALL TWO, BALL THREE, BALL FOUR, TAKE YOUR BASE!'”

But… but… what about those plays that they always write about in books like “Knotty Problems Of Baseball”… you know: “With two runners on base and one out, batter pops up. The runners advance and when the second baseman drops the ball, the runner retreats to first, where the batter is standing. The umpire did not call the infield fly rule. How should this be scored?”

Look, he said again…

Just stick a copy of the rule book in your back pocket. If something comes up that you don’t know the answer to, call TIME. You’re the umpire. You can do that. Look up the answer. If you don’t know it, ask one or both of the coaches for clarification. If you didn’t see a play, ask someone to help you with the call.

“If nobody cries or dies,” Shawn concluded, “you’re fine. Lighten up.”

Of course, once I got to the games themselves, and put on the mask and the chest protector and crouched behind the plate as the batter stepped in, I forgot about all my misgivings. The ball came into the plate from the pitcher, the batter followed it in, I watched it go through the imaginary three-dimensional “frame” my eyes had projected above the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders, and as the ball SMACKED into the catcher’s glove, I made my ball-strike calls without thinking. Sometimes they were perfect. Sometimes, on borderline pitches, I blew it and I knew it… and the batter and the catcher and the pitcher and all seven fielders and everyone on both benches and all the parents, friends and relatives watching, as well as every player who’d ever taken the field dating back to 1845 in Cooperstown, all knew it.

And I’d feel a collective sigh or hear a “Come on!” from some unseen fan, coach or player.

But the catcher would toss the ball back to the pitcher and the game would go on.

The only time I ever got stuck was in a game where a ball bounced, from my perspective, from foul territory into fair, and I got a brain cramp and couldn’t remember how far the runners could advance, if at all… and when I made the wrong call, one of the coaches corrected me, and everyone went back to their respective bases. As the ten-year-old runner who’d advanced to third walked back to second, he looked at me and said “Boy, this game is sure confusing.”

“You said it,” I replied. And the game continued.

Sometimes I forget, when I’m standing in front of a class, about to impart wisdom and knowledge that will Shape And Mold Their Very Future And Being, that, really, it’s not that serious, this teaching business. We make it a little more serious than it needs to be. The grades and tests and assessments we come up with give it all an air of seriousness and weight, and we fear that if we make one misstep, we will harm and scar our students’ futures. We will be the one teacher they had whom they WON’T thank, someday down the road, when they look back on their educations.

We sort of forget that, at its core, learning is most of all fun and exciting… in many ways, a game. People always complain about the “terrible two” stage of child development, but most moms I know say the same thing that my friend Lindsey said about teaching that age child: “It’s amazing to watch how much knowledge they’re soaking up every day, and how excited they are about learning.”

This excitement and fun can get lost with older students, just as the pure fun of baseball may get lost by the time a player becomes a collegiate or professional athlete, and considerations like wins and losses, statistics, salaries, and egos overtake the sheer joy of going out onto the green grass and playing a game.

It is up to us to keep the play and the fun in learning… to remember, and remind our students, that, yes, while the game can sure be confusing at times, it’s not life or death.

If nobody cries or dies, you’re fine. Lighten up.

About maxshenk

I am a writer (the author of the short story collection WHAT'S WITH HER?) and teacher (English instructor at the Community College of Vermont), and a graduate of Goddard College's Masters programs in Creative Writing and Education.


8 thoughts on ““This game is sure confusing…”

  1. I’ve been finding the same experience during my season as a coach. I was nervous about how well the kids do, and whether or not we will win any games, or if I won’t know the rules.

    What I’ve discovered is that the kids are improving, but still not winning often. We’ve won once, so we know we can do it, but we spend each game focusing on improving our skills. We’ve also recognized that the reasons the other teams are winning are mostly about the amount of time we can practice, and our player’s previous experience playing basketball. For many of my basketball players, this is their first season playing on a team as well. We’ve also come to know our strengths and our weaknesses.

    So I empathize with your situation. I’m glad your friend gave you some good advice.

    Posted by dwees | February 4, 2011, 2:48 pm
  2. One of my favorite (and little known) facts about Joe Paterno, the great Penn State football coach, is that, according to his autobiography, after each game, win or lose, he asks his players the same question he says his father used to ask him and his brothers after a game: “So, did you have fun?”
    Paterno is a great coach, true, but an even greater coach-as-educator. I’m sure that if he was doing his work in a classroom instead of on the practice field and the gridiron, he’d ask his “players” the same question at the end of the day.

    Posted by maxshenk | February 4, 2011, 4:13 pm
  3. Max,

    Thank you for this. I know your love of John Holt and it comes through in this great short story. What a treat to have such a great artist of the word here at the Cooperative. Fun is a tricky word in school, but why should life and learning not be fun. You don’t have to suffer to create something great, a journey full of pitfalls is not the only path to greatness. I have wrote before about redefining Fun in education…. and I think we do need to lighten up and have more fun and spend more time trying to make each other happy instead of miserable.

    what a great way to end a long week of work!


    Posted by dloitz | February 4, 2011, 9:30 pm
  4. Max,
    I absolutely love this post. Did you know that I was an umpire as well? Your story brings back many memories and the same type of transformation I went through as an umpire. It is nice to see the relationship that exists between ideas and action, the praxis if you will, and allowing ourselves, our seriousness and complications get out of the way of what is the most important element of education, learning and the element of fun in learning. Thank you so much for this post. It stresses everything we should remember in learning and asks us to relax on focusing on the things that are of less importance.

    In Educational Solidarity,

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | February 5, 2011, 12:31 am
  5. GREAT article, Max! Thank you so much for this reminder that as facilitators of learning, we need to lighten up. I think, at least in my personal experience, that sometimes as teachers, regardless of what our philosophies about teaching were when we began, that we get so caught up in the “rules of the game” . . . such as meeting the state standards, dealing with the parents of the “players”, or fulfilling all of the necessaries for our evaluations by our superiors . . . that we forget to relax, lighten up, and have fun as we share the joy of learning and growing that brought us to the field of education. I find that I have far more fun with my college students, where I don’t have some of these concerns, than I do with my high school students . . . the very ones who need to be reminded that learning can be fun. I’m printing a copy of this to post on my bulletin board as a reminder.


    Posted by Debb | February 5, 2011, 12:15 pm
  6. Thanks, Debb, Casey, and David(s).
    David Loitz mentioned John Holt. He has been a huge influence on my educational practice (as have you, David 😉 ), not because I’m really learning anything new from him, but rather because his work reminds me of stuff I already knew. Like, as I was trying to get at here, students are more engaged and more likely to learn and UNDERSTAND when they are enjoying the process. A lot of times this means nothing more than allowing them to explore and become actively involved… not in pointless activities, but (I’ve found) in activities that may SEEM pointless but which will lead to understanding. I am currently teaching an “Introduction to Research Methods” course at CCV, and while it seems like it would be the most dry course on the planet, it’s made fun by the exploration that the students and I do, in class: giving them all laptops and setting them free to find answers, with guidance from me and their peers.
    Of course, as a friend of mine who also taught this class said, “there’s at least one person sitting there checking her facebook page.” But since that would have been me, how can I blame her? And that, too, will lead to answers of some kind, although maybe not an answer that she will be happy with 🙂

    Posted by maxshenk | February 6, 2011, 10:19 am
  7. Keeping learning fun is key. We have to remember that learning is a process of discovery. The final letter grade “winning the game” is not what we want students to be focussed on. Having fun while they’re learning makes them want to learn more, they also do learn more because they are more engaged.

    Posted by Tami | February 7, 2011, 5:40 pm


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