too cute for words

Too Cute for Words
by Ed Collins/November, 1996

There are four kids in a weekly tennis clinic that I teach at Linda Vista Rec. Center; their names are Tyson, Byron, Brian, and Amber.

Nine-year-old Tyson is a happy little kid with a goofy way about him. Byron and Brian are brothers, ages 8 and 10, but both are about the same size. During the first class, when I mistakenly called Brian Byron, Brian said, “Call me Shorty.” Ordinarily I’m good with names, so at first I hesitated, but the idea of calling someone Shorty appealed to me.

During the first class Byron was completely out of control––I could barely get his attention, let alone teach him anything. Particularly confusing to Byron was the difference between left and right. The idea that the ball was to be hit over the net, and into the court, completely escaped him. When he first hit a ball over the fence I knew better than to  show disappointment. Meanwhile, his brother was eager, prepared and focused, and where Byron rarely found the court, Shorty rarely missed it.

But this story is about Amber, an eight-year-old wisp of a girl with big eyes and a tiny voice, who speaks slowly and always in complete sentences.

Midway through the first class, I told Amber to bring me a racquet full of balls. While she stood by my side, I showed her how to set the balls on the face of the racquet.

A few minutes later the basket was nearly empty.  “Amber!” I yelled, “Bring me the balls!” I assumed she was behind me, in the corner of the court, methodically piling them on her racquet; when she didn’t appear, I yelled again, “Amber! The balls! Quick!”

Out of the corner of my eye I caught Amber slowly walking toward me. I turned and saw her balancing four balls on her racquet that she carried with both hands. Her eyes were riveted to the teetering balls. When she was two steps from the basket she lost control and the balls tumbled off. She looked up at me and, with her little voice said, “The balls keep falling off.” She said it without a hint of embarrassment or disappointment.

Yesterday was our third class. I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things are going. Byron didn’t hit one ball over the fence, and twice he surprised me by actually making a couple shots. Tyson is routinely returning forehands, but so far the backhand is a mystery; Shorty is ready to turn pro; and Amber is just too cute for words, even though she’s light-years away from being a tennis player.

During yesterday’s lesson we practiced the backhand. Tyson, Byron and Shorty were more or less getting the idea, but Amber kept running into the ball. Twice in a row she took an eyes-closed roundhouse swing, only to have the ball hit her. I couldn’t resist.

“Amber, the idea is not for the ball to hit you, it’s for you to hit the ball.” Everyone laughed, including Amber.

Just before the hour ended I told the kids to gather the balls that were scattered throughout the two courts.  “Everyone bring me eight balls,” I said. “The last person who brings me eight picks up fifteen.”

Everyone scrambled off––except Amber. In a tiny voice I could barely hear, she said, “I don’t mind getting fifteen. I’m good at picking up balls.”

When I looked at Amber she looked away, but I could tell she knew I was looking at her. She was serious. A moment later she looked right at me. I smiled and she smiled back. Then she turned and walked back to the fence. I think I saw an air of confidence as she placed her racquet on the ground and started piling on the balls.

As she carefully stockpiled her balls, I thought about her comment. Then I remembered that on the second lesson she made sure I noticed that she could carry the balls on her racquet. “I can do it now,” she said.

I didn’t give it a second thought then, but now I realize that after that first class she had practiced at home.

I looked over at Shorty. Here’s a guy who can do whatever I ask, and with ease. But today the proudest student is Amber.

Because she’s good at picking up balls.