05 August 2012

Hop, step, jump

[this is a copy of my seventh and final post as a guest of Vie hebdomadaires]

On my last day as a guest of Vie hebdomadaires, I should either pull together ends in some clever way or say something profound. Alas, I can’t offer either. Today was a day of relaxation interspersed by bits and pieces.

The relaxation was a necessity. I’m in the middle of one of my periodic overcommitted phases … at too many points in the past, when today was a long way off, I’ve said “that looks interesting; I’ll do it” or “it’s important somebody does this; I’ll take it on”, and now all the chickens have come home to rest at once. I’ve almost finished writing the chapters for a textbook, for which the publisher and editor have been waiting (with strained smiles and gritted teeth) for three months. No complaints; I wouldn’t swap this occasional but recurrent problem for a less full and absorbing life, but it does produce days like today when I have to switch off and potter about while the batteries recharge.

There was a walk around the park, in brief watery sunshine after rain. There was a visit to a café, where I noticed the extraordinary sculpted planes of a napkin part unfolded on a table (see below). There was quite a bit of time sitting quietly with my partner, sharing the sections of Olympics coverage which she enjoys: the women’s marathon, the tennis, the gymnastics (she was a prize winning gymnast in her schooldays), the athletics.

Watching the triple jump sparked memories of my last sports day at school (we called it the “hop step and jump” then) but not with any prize winning glow; exactly the opposite, in fact.

As I suggested in my third VH post, I was never a shining light of the school sports scene. Nonetheless, I ended up for the second half of my final year as a house captain … the reasons for this having to do not with my own qualities but with a combination of the head teacher‘s selective snobbery, the demographics of a school whose students came and went in remarkable numbers as politicomilitary tides shifted their parents around, and an argument which led to me sulking elsewhere at just the moment when the head teacher walked in on a drunken sixth form orgy in which everyone else was implicated.

At first, this wasn’t a problem. There wasn’t, for most of the time, very much for a house captain to do apart from standing and looking pompous at the back of the hall during daily assembly. I mustered a team for the school quiz, in which we came first thanks in large part to eleven year old Miranda who answered with 100% accuracy not only her own questions but any that somebody else (regardless of team) couldn’t. But then the annual sports day loomed.

Those politicomilitary tides of arriving and departing children which I mentioned didn’t affect all school houses equally. Over a long enough period, of course, they evened out; but in the short term they frequently affected one house more than another. At the time of this particular impending sports day, my house was very short of boys in the upper two years – and the other two houses had a monopoly on those who were any good at sports.

I went to the head teacher with my problem. I could not, I said, produce enough boys in the upper school to participate in every event. This wasn’t my fault, nor was it anybody else’s; it was just the way things panned out. He looked at the figures, and agreed. He said that he would think of something. I went away.

The following day, he called me back to his study. He had decided, he said, to transfer some upper school boys from other houses into my own, to even up the numbers somewhat. This was great news; I suggested that he include in this transfer my friend Frank, who would be able to organise and motivate sports participants (I tactfully avoided any emphasis on the fact that Frank was the most sporty person in the school, and would win any event in which he took part). The head said he would see what he could do.

A week later, I got my transfers. The head called me into his study again to give me the list. before handing it over, he made gruff comments about the difficulty of arranging something like this “without ruffling feathers”. It had, he said, been necessary to negotiate willing agreement with other house captains; but a consensus had, eventually, been reached. He handed over the list; I scanned it; my heart sank. The four boys transferred to me, which their own houses had generously agreed to give up, were (like me) bookish, uncoördinated, uncompetitive and generally as different from Frank as it was possible to be. Perry was so rarely seen outside the darker corners of the library that I trouble remembering what he looked like. Clive was all set for a glorious Nobel prize winning career in chemistry, but his part in soccer matches consisted of examining the soil on the pitch and speculating about its pH value. There were two of my best friends: Chris, who was an English Literature nut, and Brian the mathematician who regularly quoted Einstein as having said “Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.” (yes, yes, I know, it wasn’t Einstein who said that; but Brian declared it was, so we believed him).

Dividing up the various events between my now just barely adequate number of participants was a matter of discovering what they would grudgingly agree to try and then picking up the remainder myself. Thus it was that Chris came to put aside his much annotated copy of Aphra Behn‘s Oroonoko and his black rimmed spectacles to start earnestly practising for the hop step and jump.

Sports day came. In the lower school events, things went reasonably well in general and Miranda (now twelve) took first prize in everything for which she’d been entered. The middle school did middlingly well, its results well behind the best but somewhat above the worst.

In the upper school we glumly watched each other participate, and fail, bravely. Perry gave his all, nevertheless came last in every event but wasn’t bothered by the fact, showered, and disappeared back into the library. Clive, all changed and ready and willing, found an interesting article about something abstrusely molecular in a copy of new Scientist which he had brought along to read between events. By the time we found him, sitting under a tree scribbling notes and formulæ on his leg, it was too late: his swimming events were over. Brian had an accident with the javelin, spearing it into the ground just ahead of him and doing an unintentional impromptu pole vault. I was so far behind the rest of the field in the 800 metres race that the games teacher pulled me off the track before I finished so that other events could start.

And Chris, in the hop step and jump? He was there on time. We watched him take his run up, and were proud of him. His foot hit the mark exactly, and we cheered as he sailed off from it in a soaring hop. Perhaps our cheers were the problem; perhaps they distracted him, broke his concentration. Coming down from the hop, landing on the same foot, he took another hop … then another … arms flailing, he strove to keep his balance as his momentum took him into one hop after another. He hopped in a ragged arc, never getting anywhere near the sandpit, watched by an incredulous school through reactions from horror to hilarity, until he hit a bush and sat down.

Watching Olga Rypakova show how it should be done, I was fondly remembering how much more (later, if not at the time) I enjoyed Chris’s version.

With that anticlimax, I’ll fondly bid my week with Vie hebdomadaires goodbye and hand you on to the next writer.


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