Indignation: Righteous or Wrong

Originally Published: January 16, 2002

It’s the bathroom one no one else knows is there because it’s so well hidden. One has to go through a glass door, down a narrow hallway, through a sort of lounge area, and find it on the right, past the tidy kitchenette. The tennis teachers tell the kids to use this bathroom because it’s faster and safer than asking a kid to go all the way down 4 floors to the locker rooms by him or herself.

Apart from paranoid adult concerns about letting a child wander around a locker room unattended, it is an awful lot to ask a child to carry a full bladder so far, especially when he or she has probably waited until the last possible second to empty it. So the logical solution was the one the teachers chose: use the closest bathroom.

Which is just what Sebastian did last weekend, dutifully, right before his tennis class was to start.

The portion of the tennis area behind that glass door is devoted to Court Tennis. When I say, “devoted to” I really mean “obsessed with”. For those of you who are under 100, Court Tennis, or Real Tennis as it is called, is a recently revived form of antiquated tennis. It dates back to the Greeks and Romans, and was mentioned by Chaucer, Erasmus, Shakespeare, and a slew of other overly educated sports fans. It is a strange, often unfathomable game that is played indoors on a closed court that has a roof, or “penthouse” off of which one rolls the ball when serving. The balls are hand-made, and much heavier and harder than modern tennis balls. The rackets, or “bats” are kidney bean shaped, and of heavy wood - there is only one manufacturer worldwide. The net dips down in the middle, and there is a gutter under it for collecting balls. The scoring is incomprehensible, involving yard-lines, chases and lots of math. The court itself is 1 1/2 times longer than a regular tennis court, and as wide as a doubles court. There are only10 courts in the US, 2 of them on the East Coast. Only one of the ten courts is open to the public. It is not exactly a game of the people.

I know just a little about it because Adolfo and I were invited to play a few months ago by an avid enthusiast of the game. He was thrilled to include us, and was adorable. He’d even invited Sebastian to play. He told us candidly that he was not trying to get us to join the Court Tennis club – he just wanted to initiate more players into the sport. He was like an enthusiastic puppy. We felt favorably disposed toward any game that would garner such a plucky emissary.

We figured out quickly, though, that he was the exception. The next “emissary” we met was a stiff, platinum-haired man in spotless tennis whites with the immediately detestable name of “Haven”. I remember his eyes quickly flickering over our grubby non-whites. He had shaken hands and smiled with dazzlingly white teeth, but I had the impression he knew we weren’t about to spring for a double membership. Our puppy friend eyed Haven as he walked off and growled that he was a colossal snob. He was also president of the club. We left the court, feeling we’d enjoyed our little foray into the past, but would in future be content playing unreal tennis with the plebes.

So back to Sebastian and his immediate need. He pulled open the glass door and tried to enter the sanctity of the Court Tennis area.

“Young man, can’t you read?” came a gruff adult voice. A man in tennis whites (who in my imagination is Haven, though it’s really just an educated guess) was blocking Sebastian’s path. “Why don’t you try reading that sign posted on the outside of the door?” he’d said, coldly, not moving an inch.

Sebastian, embarrassed, retreated through the door and dutifully read the sign. It stated that use of the Court Tennis lounge and bathroom, was strictly “for Members only”.

Humiliated and fuming, he stalked down 4 flights of stairs to the locker rooms. He was therefore late for his class, which he sulked through, angrily wiping away the tears of the betrayed.

Later this lead to a discussion on the nature of fairness and the taking of the ever elusive High Road. Adolfo and I agreed calmly that certainly, this guy was a rude, snobbish bully. That understood, Sebastian could then dismiss him from his mind. He was simply not worth ruining his tennis class or his day over. But in a kid’s world, fairness is non-negotiable. It is hard to explain to a child, especially a child who generally plays by the rules, that sometimes you have to let injustice go unpunished: sometimes the bad guy wins a hand or two. The old cliché “pick your battles” came out more than once. Sebastian was somewhat mollified, but he was not really satisfied. The righteous are never wrong.

But as if on cue, three days later, I found a shining example of true injustice, an incident that embodied the battle that should be picked and fought.

In Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column of Tuesday, Feb. 15, he told the story of an 8 year-old boy, a good student and avid reader, who had accidentally grabbed his mother’s house keys before dashing to the bus. In the bathroom at school, while digging in his pocket for a tissue, the keys had fallen out. Two boys in the bathroom with him looked at the keys, to which was attached a pair of nail clippers and said, “You brought a pocket knife!” The boy said no, they were just his mom’s nail clippers. Nevertheless, the boys told the teacher, who then told the principal. The principal send a letter home to the boy's mom saying her son was, “ found in possession of a dangerous object. The most dangerous object being a 2 inch blade.”

Go to your bedside table and get out your $ 0.99 nail clippers. By no stretch of the imagination does that file measure 2”. Amazingly, the principal recommended expulsion from Montgomery County Public Schools. The mother had never even met the principle until the day she received the expulsion notice. In the end, the confused county decided to allow the boy to return to school. The column ends with the mother, Teshina, saying, “‘How it got this far and this out of control is beyond me,’…her son looked up silently at her, holding her hand for dear life.”

I summarized the story for the Sebastian and his brothers, who were eating their breakfasts. They were duly outraged. I reminded Sebastian about our conversation regarding when to stand up for your rights, and when to let a wrong pass. This, we agreed, was a time where it was important to stand up. Sebastian stewed awhile, obviously indignant on behalf of the boy, and swirled his milk with his spoon. “You’d think,” he said finally, “that principal probably has a Ph.D. or something. How is it that she couldn’t tell the difference between a knife and a nail clipper? She must be really stupid.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that that wasn’t the worst of her stupidity. Spinelessness, mindless cleaving to the letter of the law and simple brute prejudice. These are far worse traits. But he’s got enough to digest for now. Those lessons can wait for another day.


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