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Nora Johnson
March 27, 1961
First there were Brenda and Frank, and then came Mr. Gemini; then gym teacher after gym teacher and a climactic afternoon in Switzerland. This is the story of a young girl's struggle in a world of competitive sport, and how her dream came true at last—pukka sahibs, white flannels and all
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March 27, 1961

My Life At Thirty-love

First there were Brenda and Frank, and then came Mr. Gemini; then gym teacher after gym teacher and a climactic afternoon in Switzerland. This is the story of a young girl's struggle in a world of competitive sport, and how her dream came true at last—pukka sahibs, white flannels and all

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Let me say right off that I believe in tennis, the way I believe in antique oriental rugs, or good wine, or people who make me laugh. There are a great many sports I can't say this for—practically all the rest, as a matter of fact, because I have spent so many years competing with them for the attention of men without much success. I have occasionally wondered how many hours of this precious life I have wasted desperately trying to break the fixed gaze of some man who is staring at a football field, a baseball field, a rinkful of hockey players four miles down at the bottom of Madison Square Garden, or a television screen showing a pair of damp and clearly miserable prizefighters. All the hours have been made worse by the fact that I don't understand my enemy; another woman is nothing compared to a baseball game.

Besides this major frustration, there is the fact that every winter, from the age of 7 or 8 until I graduated from college, I was haunted by the constant threat of Team Sports. From an early age, the world was forcibly divided into two hostile groups—my side and the other side. It began with battle campaigns in Central Park, when the girls would climb over the rocks to attack the boys with snowballs and showers of pebbles, or would march into enemy territory and take them on in hand-to-hand battle. This game of simple hatred branched out into the more complicated ones of team sports at girls' schools, where we were divided into Reds and Whites, or Gargoyles and Griffins. There we learned the more subtle techniques of softball, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, basketball, dodge ball, field hockey, and any number of other contests that the gym departments thought good for us.

There is no worse sight on the face of the earth than a field full of dirty, sweating, ham-hocked girls in shin guards, flapping around with hockey sticks and yelling invective at each other. The authorities, alas, were convinced that this was the way to instill the golden quality of team spirit. The result was, of course, that the members of the team always hated each other, or at least hated me, and I hated them.

I remember boarding school lacrosse as being particularly nightmarish. I was always goalie, for some reason, and since I wore glasses I was shackled into about 15 pounds of glasses guard and catcher's mask; naturally, this Iron Maiden meant that I could neither see nor move my head, and when the inevitable ball flew past me into the goal real team-spirit hatred would break loose. "What's the matter, Johnson? You blind? Are you asleep? They've won, you jerk!" and so on, when all I asked was to be kind and gentle and generous. When the matter had deteriorated into shrieking mayhem (it was really only an excuse for everyone to get rid of her hostility), the gym teacher would stride into the fray with an expression of pure blissful fulfillment on her face. "There, there, girls. After all, it's only a game. You'll have a chance to trounce each other again tomorrow." And she would go off toward the locker room a happy woman. Sadism had triumphed again; the girls were learning team spirit.

One might easily assume that all this would be more than enough to put me off all sports forever. But actually it was the hidden brainwashing that I objected to, more than the idea of using one's muscles. A little exercise seemed like a good idea, as long as it wasn't carried too far. There was nothing like it for getting rid of the old flab. Tennis was one of the few sports that seemed fair, reasonable and civilized. Both my parents were tennis players when I was very young, in Los Angeles, and I have dim memories of them bounding off with their rackets, my mother in a white sharkskin tennis dress that came to her knees and a white headache band. Occasionally they won a small cup for mixed doubles at the Bel Air Bay Club, and these were displayed on the mantelpiece. Now, most children, by the time they reach 10 or 11, wouldn't be caught dead liking anything their parents liked, just on general principle. But I had to admit that they really looked nice and cheerful when they went off to play, and they still looked cheerful when they came back, even if they hadn't won. They may have been a little damp, but they weren't steaming with mud and sweat; they didn't have to wear shin guards or glasses guards and, most amazing of all, they clearly managed to remain on perfectly good terms with their opponents.

Besides this, I had a secret sentimental vision of tennis. It came from a picture in an old cartoon book, and it must have been drawn around 1910. It showed a doll-like young lady, with eyes like eggs and a long skirt, gracefully poised on the court with her racket in the air, and a dashing opponent with mustache, straw boater and a sporting but passionate expression on his face. Underneath it said:

"What is the score?" asked Brenda.
"Thirty LOVE," answered Frank, meaningfully.

This struck a half-conscious response in me that went far beyond the gentle pun. Here was a situation in which a man and a woman could compete with each other, and instead of ending up by bashing each other over the head with their rackets, their relationship would deepen with every smack of the ball. This was what I was looking for, and when I was around 12, in New York, I asked my mother if I could take tennis lessons—not because she was a tennis player, but because it was the only sport my highly discriminating palate could tolerate.

My tennis teacher was named Mr. Gemini, or something like that, and he operated out of the 33rd Street Armory. He was a vision of cool perfection in white flannels and polka-dot ascot, and he continually combed his hair. Twice a week I went there for an hour of the most elaborate pretense on everybody's part. My mother pretended that she didn't care a bit whether I learned tennis, I pretended that she had shanghaied me into the whole thing, and Mr. Gemini made a bare and feeble effort to pretend that he was interested in the proceedings. He told my mother that he thought I had the makings of a champion and sent her on her way, and then he and I settled down to business.

He stood on one side of the net, I stood on the other. He would then bat about 50 balls to me, forehand, one after another, and I would bat them at the ceiling, into the net or down to the other end of the room. Both of us quickly gave up pretending and settled into an honest relationship; I fervently wanted to learn tennis, and Mr. Gemini wished he were doing anything else on earth but teaching me. We always played on the court nearest the door so Mr. Gemini could chat with the people who came in and out, and there were plenty of them. Sometimes there were six or eight people on the court, all jabbering away with Mr. Gemini, while he continued to send endless balls over, like a machine, and I desperately returned them in the wrong direction.

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