Every now and then, a high school ultimate frisbee team will ask me to come out and run a clinic for them. I teach some fundamentals, run them through drills, watch them scrimmage, and give them some basic ideas about how to keep improving. Last weekend I drove sixty miles north of Brooklyn to Cross River, NY, where about 30 kids at John Jay High School play together on a team that calls itself “Air Raid.”
Off Exit 6 of I-684, the road winds through woods, past long driveways and tasteful, large houses with stone fences bounding their acreage. Cross River is a wealthy town of Metro North commuters. Their children, the members of Air Raid, showed up at the fields one by one, driving their parents’ SUVs, minivans, and late-‘90s-era hand-me- down Mercedes sedans. The clinic was to start at 10; half of the team had arrived by 10:30.
All teenagers are hilarious in some way, when you get to know them. Teenage ultimate players tend to wear their quirkiness especially close to the surface. In a catching drill, one boy named Anton dove for an errant pass, missed it, and skidded awkwardly onto the ground; rather than stand up in a conventional way, he let his momentum carry him into a backward summersault, head-first through a puddle, and up onto his feet. Anton leaped to his feet, screaming. His hair was caked with icy mud, his sweatshirt soaked. Many of his teammates literally fell to the ground laughing as Anton ripped off his shirt and sprinted to the sidelines to change into dry clothes.
Later in the morning, I began confusing two boys named Kyle and Ryan — probably because both names have four letters and a “y.” Standing in the middle of a huddle, asking for a volunteer to help demonstrate the finer points of throwing, I called Ryan “Kyle” for the third or fourth time.
Exasperated, Ryan said, “You can remember I’m Ryan because I have one eye. Like, ‘Ryan with One Eye.’”
Experienced educators will recognize this immediately as the kind of bait that kids will occasionally throw out for authority figures, in an attempt to trick us into abandoning our focus. I was once a teacher. The correct way to respond to Ryan’s comment was to ignore it. Yet my authority-figure muscles have atrophied over the past few years, and Ryan’s comment was delightfully absurd. He appeared to have two eyes, and even if one was fake, how would that help me remember his name? He could just as easily be Kyle with One Eye.
“Really?” I said. “It’s true!” his teammates said. “Pop it out, Ryan!”
Ryan seemed to consider it, but looked distressed. I thought he was offended at being treated like a circus freak.
“Guys, I can’t,” he said. “My hands are dirty.” It was a matter of hygiene.
Ryan’s teammates continued to goad him, and rather than corral the group back into focus, I found myself daydreaming about having one eye. Beyond the lack of depth perception, the limited peripheral vision, the inconvenience of extracting and cleaning your glass eye every night — how would you break that fact to a new girlfriend? — I pondered the unappreciated comfort of having body parts in pairs. Eyes, ears, hands, kidneys. The worst part of having only one eye, I decided, would be that you’d feel at least twice as vulnerable to the threat of being blinded. We two-eyed people don’t often have occasion to ponder what blindness would be like. But I bet Ryan does. Subtly, subconsciously, he has probably learned to look longer and remember better whenever he encounters something beautiful.
I snapped out of my daydream. In a matter of seven seconds, a normal and predictable frisbee-throwing lesson had turned into absurdity. I felt fully complicit. Having indulged my daydream, I had lost the moral standing to correct their lack of focus with any indignation of my own. Instead, I could only smile at them conspiratorially, an authority figure silently acknowledging what all teenagers suspect, and occasionally charm or cajole adults into revealing: that power is a fiat currency, that adulthood is largely make-believe, and that the value of rules sometimes lies in the joy of ignoring them.