“Jackson had never read even a simple book until six months ago. He’s in the fifth grade.” I stepped back, becoming more unsettled by the story I was hearing. I was Jackson’s tennis teacher, one of many volunteers meeting twice a week to teach tennis. Jackson’s grandmother continued to add details-- a mom that neglected him, a dad not in the picture, extreme difficulties in school, particularly with reading. Jackson’s new hobby was tennis, and his grandmother desperately wanted him to experience success. I listened to Jackson’s story quietly, offering his grandmother assurance that he did have the potential to become a good tennis player. Inside I was reeling. This was a little boy abandoned and a grandmother struggling to lift him up. This was a different reality of the world than the world I mostly knew it to be.
I originally volunteered to teach tennis to reconnect with the sport that I once truly cherished. Tennis has always been a fun part of my life, but competitive tennis had ruined the fun for me. I hoped that teaching tennis to eager youngsters would renew my spirit, and I was right. Looking in the kids’ smiling faces each lesson reminded me why I fell in love with tennis a long time ago.
Tennis class is where I met Jackson. A little guy who still had some baby fat, Jackson looked rather angelic on the first day of class. Jackson soon failed to live up to his endearing physical appearance. He often picked fights with the other boys in the class, and I had to reprimand him at least once every lesson. As I observed Jackson, I labeled him a troublemaker. I never thought about why he might act the way he did or the circumstances of his upbringing, until his grandmother filled me in on his background. If Jackson had come from a background such as mine, he might have rightfully been labeled a troublemaker. In reality, while Jackson was making trouble, he desperately needed positive attention, which I, as his tennis instructor, could provide. With understanding of his background, I changed my interactions with Jackson, addressing any poor behavior while consciously recognizing and promoting his good. As we developed a relationship including trust and mutual respect, Jackson’s attitude, self-confidence and even his tennis ability improved.
I had never really contemplated the importance of empathy until that day at tennis. I had been told that many of the children I was teaching were from troubled backgrounds, but I had not appreciated what “troubled” really meant, how “troubled” impacted each child, and how I needed to take into account “troubled” as I instructed. I learned many invaluable lessons during my summer at the tennis courts. From Jackson, I learned empathy, found a powerful motivation to use my good fortune to help others, and a renewed love for a game. My student was my teacher.