a beginner, forever

by caitlin meredith

Growing up, I took ten years of beginning tennis lessons. Whether it was sleep-away summer camp, a junior high elective or after school enrichment at the public park, I never advanced to intermediate. This wasn’t due to a crippling lack of athleticism – I could scamper around the court and hit the ball well enough – I just preferred the beginners’ classes. The guppy-level teachers were always smilier and cuter than their gruffer, more advanced counterparts. The intermediate coach expected you to remember what to do with your right shoulder when you served; the beginner coach was just thrilled you showed up.

Tennis isn’t the only endeavor I’ve sought out but had low-to-no goals for. I’ve taken classes, and never advanced beyond the beginners’ level, in everything from horseback riding to Thai cooking. It’s not that I’m a wandering dilettante, seeking to pad the hobby section of my resume, it’s just that I like the spirit of beginners’ classes. Everyone’s a bit vulnerable because they’re new at the activity and there’s a real we’re-all-in-it-together feeling about making fools of ourselves in front of other novices. The instructor wants to infect you with his or her enthusiasm for basket weaving/square foot gardening/kayaking so that you may one day derive the same pleasure from your mastery of their favorite pastime.

In most cases, I don’t expect or hope to master the subject of the class. This has always been a source of, if not tension, bafflement, for my instructors. For instance, earlier this year I took a rock climbing class (Climbing for Beginners, of course) but I had no intention of becoming a rock climber. Whenever the instructor – an every-free-moment-cliff-scaler – would liken a maneuver we were practicing in the safe confines of the gym to what we might encounter on the face of Half Dome I would snort. Who the hell would try this on a real rock wall?? Well, everyone else in the class, of course. That’s why they were taking it. Same for when I took figure skating lessons as a child. I didn’t want to be a figure skater – I wanted to be a figure skating lesson taker. In addition to a tennis lesson taker, horseback riding lesson taker, photography lesson taker, sailing lesson taker, rock climbing class taker, etc. Ask me to join you in a Russian 101 class and I’ll gladly join. Ask me if I want to speak Russian and I will frown and shake my head. With the exception of swimming, writing and elementary school math, I can’t think of any activity I learned through lessons that I ever went on to do without an instructor present.

This is making me sound really lazy. I just cruise the easy parts like the present tense of regular verbs but don’t want to have to actually engage to the level that I understand the difference between the right and left-facing accents. There is a little truth to that, but something else is also going on.

Whereas in my daily life I work hard to not be consumed by the anxiety of life’s biggest questions, beginners’ lessons allow me the rare opportunity to focus on the component parts without worrying about the grand whole. In these cases, the parts are actually larger than the sum. In tennis classes, I liked learning and repeating the forehand as its own entity. Blending it seamlessly into game day strategy was irrelevant. When I finally felt confident climbing the easiest paths on the rock climbing gym wall I didn’t view that as a mere stepping stone to the more challenging circuits like my classmates did. I wanted to do them again and again.

A major contributing factor is that I lack the competitive spirit that eggs people on to advance beyond the beginners’ level. My one experience on a competitive sports team – middle school soccer doesn’t count – was on the swim team in high school. I showed up to every practice, even the 5:30am dry land workouts when we had to run up the steepest hill in our town while it was still dark out. And I was a pretty good swimmer. How good, we’ll never really know, much to my coach’s despair.

First of all I never looked at my times. They were meaningless to me. If you told me I finished the 50-meter freestyle race in 30 seconds or five minutes I would’ve believed you either way. This is sacrilege in the swimming world where you not only compete with the swimmers in the other lanes but with your own previous times.  After a fast sprint my coach would go from proud to ballistic when he saw me exit the pool without even glancing at the clock.

Secondly, the idea of anyone who actually cared coming in last broke my heart. Emerging from the pool is such an awkward thing anyway, there was something about the losers’ humiliation of doing that in front of the crowd when all the other swimmers were already wrapped in their towels that I couldn’t get over. I decided it would be much better to be the loser myself than to endure watching someone else in last place. On several occasions I slowed down on the final lap to try to squeeze defeat from the clutches of one of my opponents. My coach never believed me when I said I got tired, but there was nothing I, or he, could do. After one meet where I got dismal times (so he told me) my coach yelled at me: “Caitlin, your problem is that you care more about life than swimming!!!” Oh God was he mad when I laughed in recognition. I would’ve preferred to never swim in any of the meets, but you weren’t allowed to only go to practice. The poor guy had to give me the award for most valuable player at the end of the season because even though I sabotaged my times and refused to embrace the cutthroat winners’ drive he so desperately tried to instill in me, I was the only person on the team that hadn’t missed a single practice.

The fact that I like any lessons at all, or swimming, is a bit of a miracle. When I was a baby my family moved to a house with a pool. My mom was so worried about accidental drowning that she had a teacher come to the house to give me weekly swimming lessons. The thinking at the time was babies who knew how to swim wouldn’t drown. You know how you teach a baby to swim? You throw her in the pool and wait for her to figure it out.* I was 12 months old, and, as family lore has it, I fucking hated that woman. That might’ve also had something to do with the fact that my dad was too cheap to heat the pool and the lessons were in the ice cold morning water.** Since the mid-seventies when this all went down there’s been research that indicates that even if you can teach a baby to swim they’ll never be able to save themselves because their noggins are too heavy for them to lift out of the pool. Despite the traumatic, futile experience, however, I ended up loving both swimming and classes, mildly allaying my mom’s intense guilt.

My mom shouldn’t feel too guilty anyway. Even with the misguided swimming experiment, it’s probably because of her that I like beginners’ classes so much. One of my favorite childhood memories is of a vegan cooking class we took together taught by Jerry Garcia’s mistress (this was Northern California in the ‘80’s). I remember liking her demonstrations in the community college kitchen’s center island, learning how to cut seaweed and being in the mix with strangers all wearing the same neatly ironed aprons. I also remember stopping at McDonald’s for Big Macs and fries on the way home from class, trying to blot out the encounter with a particularly dry, tasteless vegan attempt at dessert: whole wheat rhubarb tart.*** I left that class emboldened in my confidence that the vegan diet wasn’t for me, but that standing around a table playing chef was for me. If it’s still being offered, I’d take that class again.

*Update: My mother has a different version: “The instructor gently dipped the infant’s head under the water for seconds at a time, never letting go of her.”

**Update: Again, my mom’s version: “While it’s a fact that my husband hated the cost of heating the pool, he made an exception when the kids were taking lessons.”

***Update: Undisputed.