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Helena, AR, Sunday Pick-Up   
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Joined: 06 Apr 2003
Posts: 537
Location: Helena, AR

PostPosted: Mon, 08.08.11 3:12 pm    Post subject: Helena, AR, Sunday Pick-Up Reply with quote

Hi Folks,

As some of you may know by now, I started working in April as a Data Analyst for KIPP Delta, an open enrollment charter school system that is based in Helena, AR. KIPP is a national network of charter schools and is a vibrant, young and fast growing organization. KIPP's mission is to do whatever it takes furnish the high-poverty students they serve the tools needed to get them to and through college.

Since I've been working I've had a number of teachers and staff ask me about my ultimate background and tell me about the pick up game that they have at the Vandewalle house on Sundays. Since I work from Little Rock, I haven't made it out yet. Last week when I was at summit one of the high school teachers mentioned over a meal that he had written an essay about ultimate frisbee in the delta. I was floored last night to read his essay which he sent out to all staff along with an invitation to come play. Hardly any of them have any sort of a background in competitive play, nor have they ever been to a tournament. Nevertheless, I don't think I've ever read anything that encapsulates the spirit of the game in such a unique and compelling way.

Anyway, I wanted to share it with all of you.


The game starts after church, anywhere from 2 to 5pm on
Sunday, depending on the season and how hot it is during the day and how
long the light extends at night. People role up on the bumpy brick street
on Delta time, usually a little late: very often the game wont get going
until twenty or thirty minutes past the officially announced start time,
although its not unusual for a player or two to trickle in more than an
hour after weve started. If you role up on time or early, you are sure to
find KIPP Delta Collegiate principal and ten-year Delta veteran, Luke
Vandewalle, working in his garage on his latest project, with loud death
metal music blaring and a large tattoo on his forearm, contrasting with his
thick glasses and missionary zeal for helping children. Many players are
coming straight from getting work done at school; others are marking the end
of their weekend with a last-hurrah before they have to finally prepare for
the week. Some are trying to burn off some of that nervous energy that
prevents them from hitting peak productivity. A few travel from as far as
Marvell or Clarksdale, thirty miles away, every week to participate. ****

If it were a painting it would look and feel part southern, part poverty,
part racial segregation, part rag-tag small town. The field lies next to
the Vandewalles box-like house that sits on its own near the corner of one
of the busiest intersections, isolated from all the houses nearby. The
house is a 100 years old and three-stories of red brick with ceilings too
high to be efficiently air conditioned. Across the street sits a historic
house from the antebellum south, but could fit equally well in Disneyworld
with all its grand spires and odd angles. Catty corner to the house a few
cars in various degrees of repair, but all with large, shiny chrome wheels,
roll in or out of a gas station parking lot. An alley runs parallel to the
field, with occasional students riding their bikes, sometimes two or three
to a bike, sometime with no hands. One of the locals from nearby public
housing in a wife beater will walk by with a drink inside a paper bag from
the gas station. A piece of garbage has probably blown onto the lawn. ****

The grass field itself is a little bumpy and uneven.
Theres a telephone pole in the middle of the south end zone, which at least
two people have slammed into. Geometry teacher Mike Cummins got right up
and kept running. Legend has it that his predecessor by five years, Mike
Martins collision actually caused the pole to lean at the slightly askew
angle it now remains. There is a concrete side-walk along the west side of
the field that has eaten the face of more than one diving player. Theres a
big bush in one corner of the field which sometimes catches a Frisbee at the
top and various tall players or implements are needed to retrieve it. At
one point, there was a huge dirt pile in the south end zone, while Lukes
garage addition was being built, which players ran up and down and used to
try to lose a defender. But now the garage itself has all the quirky charm
of the Red-monster in Bostons Fenway Parkwe wait as the Frisbee ricochets
off and try to retrieve it before it hits the ground. For a long time, just
beyond the telephone pole and garage, there was a pit-bull chained to the
ground, which would growl and snap at you any time a Frisbee got tossed just
a little too long. But a fire and insurance money has left that house
empty, so now our diving catches extend all the way to the rickety fence
behind which the dog used to wait.****

On the north end of the field you only have about two feet
of grass to catch a disc in the endzoneand then the street. You have to
size up which cars are coming and when, to see if you can make a break for
it while your defender is checking to see if the street is clear. But even
if you do see that there are no cars coming, you still have to navigate the
two inch switch from grass, down to side-walk, back up to grass, down to
street curb and again to streetwithout taking your eye off the Frisbee and
missing it entirely or losing your stride and missing it by the length of an
outstretched arm, only to have a car roll over the disc. Which happens with
regularity. It is kind of a running, nervous joke we make, that one of us
will at some point be taken out by a car, whenever the Frisbee enters the
street. ****

The terrain of the field is so treacherous that Frisbees arent the only
things that get broken; there was a stretch of four or five weeks in a row
one summer when I managed to start bleeding, usually from taking an
ill-advised dive. Others have suffered serious ankles sprains and been
unable to play for months. In addition to occasionally being the source of
injury, the weather itself is an important tactical part of the game. The
heat and humidity of the Delta in the summer leaves your shirt soaked in
sweat after about thirty seconds of light jogging and, if it werent for the
hose in the back of the house and frequent breaks, games during the summer
would be impossible. In the winter months, some have taken to wearing
gloves but this is frowned upon by the purists. Most people who have played
through a big rainstorm would agree that rain makes the game betterit makes
the game more dramatic and there is no more dramatic a rain than the
downpours in the Arkansas Delta. One time, it started hailing lightly and
lightening struck nearby and we all just pressed ourselves up against the
side of the house until it passed, the sun came back out and fifteen minutes
later we were back out on the field. The snow-storms that have swept across
the country this past January added a quieting, elegant beauty, and a
warrior-like toughness. ****

The reckless jumping into the road and crushed Frisbees,
the playing through injury and just about any weatheris just another reason
why, in addition to it being a bunch of mostly young white outsidersthe
teachers or the Teach Americasthat we sometimes wonder how strange we
look as the cars pass us by. Most of our school events are inside, in
buildingsin the community, but not in the communitys face. But the
Frisbee game occurs every Sunday during prime after-church hours, right next
to one of its busiest intersections. It carries an element of public
display. Every now and then someone will come by and show some interest and
join the game, but mostly they just drive by and try to dodge any errantly
tossed Frisbees that land in the road. During our recent Frisbee snow-storm
officers said to each other across their dispatch:****

** **
Police officer: Have you driven past the Perry Street Market recently? ****
Police Officer 2: No. ****
Police Officer: When you get a chance, drive by. House across the street
from Perry Market. Frisbee in shorts. ****
Police Officer 2: Laughter. Will do.****
[After driving by]****
Police 2: It's just not right to me. ****
Police 1: I thought it just wasn't me. ****
Police 2: Definitely crazy.****
** **

As much as the salience of the building itselfthe Vandewalle family is at
the core of the frisbee tradition. It used to be just Jamie and Luke
Vandewalle, but as the game has continued over the years, Camielle arrived,
moved into a stroller and is now running along side us and shouting Disc
when someone throws it. She usually is employed by the other team as a very
cute distraction, running down the field with that slightly off-balance gait
of a four-year old. Shell ask to be picked up, or ask you to watch her
ride her bike or look at her new dog. Sometimes someone will take a break
on the side will play with Camielle and her little brother, James Augustan.
Sometimes Jamie takes them into the house. Quite frequently their
grandparents are visiting and take care of them. Sometimes an errantly
tossed Frisbee will get too close to one of them playing totally unawares,
before it crashes into the side of the house just beyond their head. Their
presence makes the game a family affair, endowing the game with an extra
dimension of humanity. Most teachers have come straight from college and
having left their families behindthis is one of the few interactions weve
had with family since we left our own. If this game were held at a regular
teachers house, it probably would take on just a little bit of the air of a
frat partybut the Vandewalles are serious people, serious about creating
change in the Delta. They were one of the first TFA couples to buy a house,
have children and commit themselves fully to this community. When you come
to their house, you may be playful and have fun, but you are coming as an
adult and representing yourself to the entire community who passes by.****

Each player develops a reputation. My reputation could probably best be
described as better suited for a football match. Luke has the best
on-the-disc defense, and a solid throw but doesnt like to go deep; Maisie
Wright is probably the most tenacious on the field and can sometimes be
heard roaring at a Frisbee that lurches just beyond her reach; despite being
a foot shorter than the people most people he plays against, Tom Klink comes
down with any disc thrown his way; Steven Callens one of the most naturally
talented, with a smooth, long throw and long limbs, but his laziness only
makes him a factor when he sometimes decides to be; Sanford is like a large
truck, impossible to stop once he gets going; Tyson Pease is often called
ninja Pease for the way that he karate chops Frisbees to the ground that
you thought were out of his reach; Cummins plays in his bare feet and
employs a native-American like swiftness; Marty Graham was quiet in glasses,
but fast as a bullet and loved to throw a deep bomb; John Bennents was the
rookie phenom with arms that seemed to stretch from one side of the field to
the other; Danny is the latest seeming re-incarnation of Martys speed and
penchant for perpetual debilitating injuries. And so on. We try to pair
people up against each others relative strengths, so that as long as
everyone on your team plays together and plays within their abilities and
doesnt try to do too much, you will have a good chance of winning.****

For the insiders, the game has importance, a mood of heroism, of stories and
nostalgia. Most people dont seem to remember very much about any
particular game soon after its over, but we feel its mood, its joy.
Sometimes I leave, having made just one leaping grab, one diving catch into
the ground, having leaped over Sanford Johnsons huge torso to knock the
Frisbee down at a crucial moment, to make all the scrapes and fatigue worth
it. I go to get as tired as I can and leave soaked in sweat. I may stop to
joke aroundit is not as serious as real competitive sportsbut its
importance is greater than just a regular competitive sport. We get the
same thrills of victory and defeat, the same small amount of recognition for
our brief acts of heroismbut without making the game tedious and
mechanical. We are not there, really to win, or to dominate. Were there
to have fun and exercise vigorously. So the moment were finished
recounting that days glory and head home, there isnt much further
bragging. ****

Although this is one of the most beloved and longest lasting traditions of
TFA in the Deltadont get me wrong, it isnt always a huge event. It
usually starts off the year, like a lot of the teaching in the Delta, full
of energy and lots of numbers. But as peoples energy wanes and time feels
more precious and the winter cold sets on, there are some Sundays where you
scrap together just enough players for a game. Sometimes you have to grab
your phone from the car to make calls to get a couple more out. You need at
least eight to have a real competitive game. If it ever drops below that
you can only sustain your concentration and intensity for a short while.
After that, either the heat or the cold, and the inability to focus that
long, means that the game doesnt just get sloppy, it gets downright silly.
It can descend into jumping on peoples backs and playfully tackling them on
the ground, outrageously illegal moves and fits of giggling and laughter.
But at its peak participation, on such a small field, it ends up looking
kind of like a fight scene in a star wars movie with lots of near collisions
and real collisions and the swarming energy of a beehive. But even with
this many people the game is still best when, in-between every point and on
the walk back after a score, you are teasing and jeering, talking about your
weekend and the week ahead. Anytime you can make joking and laughter part
of the game, it feels better, more human, more clearly just a game. But
its difficult to talk and play at the same time. So sometimes you come out
and its pure intensity: for whatever reason, everyone has come that day
focused, to compete and win, and youre pushed to the edge of your ability,
youre lost in the focus of what youre doing and exhausted.****

The combination of there being so many go-getters, who are
driven by the endless amount of work that there is to do, for a cause whose
justification clearly seems more important than our own personal whims and
fanciesit can seem like an abnormally large gesture to take out the time
every week, on a Sunday, usually the biggest day for lesson planning for the
weekjust to play a sport. Frisbee, like most sports is not something you
do for the sake of demonstrating growth. You may get better at playing
Frisbee itself in the course of playing, but it doesnt lead to any grander
social achievement beyond itself. In contrast, work on a lesson has the
potential to change childrens lives the next day, with reverberations
capable of altering the very fabric of the world we live in. Thus, the
people who continue to play Frisbee have decided to take a stand for a
moment, at least briefly, against the ever-constant need for more work to
improve the lives of our studentsin order to build a community for
themselves and make it livable and enduring, by taking this time every week
just to be happy and enjoy themselves, without it leading in a very direct
way to any social betterment or personal growth trajectory. The joy of the
game is its own justification. Coming to Frisbee is a way of validating our
own happiness in the face of the non-profit worlds tendency to engulf you
in a never-ending flow of work to help others and our own tendencies to
pursue personal ambitions, and instead lose ourselves in the spirit of
vigorous competition.****

In theory, any kind of activity could have served the purpose of distracting
people from their work and bringing them together as a community. So what
is about the nature of the game Frisbee in particular that has helped cleave
people to it, in a way that other activities havent been able to? My
theory of why Frisbee is so great breaks down into several complementary
parts: a) we play outside and anything you can do outside is, all other
things being equal, inherently better and more refreshing; b) it is
physical, which makes your body feel healthier and releases endorphins c) it
moves so quickly, like dancing or basketball, you have to react more than
think, which allows you to take the focus off of yourself and your everyday
concerns for a little while; d) it is social, so many people push themselves
harder than they would if they were alone and escape the isolation of
preparing for work the next day, and the less competitive among us can still
come and enjoy themselves; e) most of us havent been playing Frisbee for
years on end like we have some other sports and activities and so nobodys
that much better than anybody else and its pretty competitive without
anyones ego exploding.****

Although all of these reasons, in some way or another create the necessary
conditions for Frisbee to be fun, I want to talk about one more reason why
Frisbee is so great: it has endured. As corps members come and go, year
after year, with them goes all community and set of memories and traditions,
dispersed and spread across the country in a Diaspora of Delta memories.
Frisbee has developed a history, a memory that extends beyond the TFA
Deltas long-standing Director, Ron Nurenburg, and office manager, Bessie
Hundt. ****

Frisbee has become a tradition, in these first moments in
time in which it is really possible for traditions to come into
existencewhen the first TFA teachers have become school-builders, buying
houses and starting families, staying not just for two years but a decade.
But like every tradition, it will either live on or die out because of the
actions people take. So its existence is fragile. Skipping Frisbee one
week isnt just skipping Frisbee. Its chipping away at one of the few
legacies and institutions that have persisted. Every time a teacher cant
make it because they have too much work to do, I wonder if they arent,
unknowingly, chipping away at one of the adhesives that might eventually
keep them here. That, paradoxically, in their desire to good for their
students and this town by working so hard at the expense of everything
elsethey miss the foundational acts of community-building and tradition
that might give them an important reason for staying. ****

Toward the end of the year we begin to talk about the hope of a fresh new
crop of Frisbee players. The new Frisbee year, like the new school year,
offers the promise of a new start: we need new people, new energy to sustain
the game. But again somewhat paradoxically, as we get better and the game
more skillful, we end up making our game more exclusive. A new player can
be frustrated easily, just as it can be frustrating for a veteran to see
them make such simple mental mistakes. Thus, a new group offers not just
new commitments and excitement, but also a fresh range of abilities to keep
our game a friendly affair, as well as the possibility of the emergence of a
player whose ability will push us to get even better. We have often joked
about hiring people based on their willingness and ability to play
Frisbee. ****

The game has often taken on an air of real romance as well.
Sanford Johnson (TFA 03) tells the story of how Jemar Tisby (also TFA 03)
first set his sights on another corps member, Janee (07), one afternoon when
she came out for Frisbee. A year and a half later they were married. There
isnt really much flirting on the field, but several others have admitted
that they originally fell in love while on the field. Any posturing you
might do is disguised in a burst of extra energy to impress. A girl once
told me that she wouldnt date another player on the field because he runs
like a girl.
So even though it may seem small potatoes, Jemar and Janees
marriage is another anecdotal piece of evidence that something as seemingly
inconsequential as a game of Frisbee can be fundamentally important to the
task of building better schools for children. A love of the game of Frisbee
seems to have coincided with teachers staying past their original two year
committment. Occasionally, we will play a second time during the week
because someone has returned back to visit and we know that we must throw an
extra frisbee game that week to commemorate the moment. Or weve sometimes
had night games on New Years eve, which were sloppy with drink. Or for a
big event such as a follow up to the the towns big King Bisquit Blues
Festival. These moments sometimes come up in lore while were chatting on
the side, or after a particularly remarkable play, in which we have to stop
to recount whether such a play has occurred before and, if so, by whom and

There are Frisbee players who leave, dont get me wrong, but the Frisbee
players who leave also seem to be the ones who come back to visit the most
frequently. So is it the Frisbee that is keeping people? Tyson Pease (TFA
07), admits that he thought about it at a crucial moment when making his
decision to stay. But correlation is not causation: it may be that the
people who choose to stay of their own accord are drawn to the game of
Frisbee because it provides something regular, a sense of tradition and
community and even some history. If the Delta is ultimately going to be a
place for people to live and reside in, we need more games of Frisbee,
whether it is the cause of their staying or not. The very rural Delta has
always been a place whose particular joy Maisie Wright (TFA 06) has
described as being derived from the fact that you have to make your own fun
here. And so corps members have made their own fun, over and over again in
so many ways. But these flickers of joy and fleeting embers, until this
moment, have failed to catch, have failed to create the kind of fission-like
reaction that will sustain itself. ****

But unlike the neutrons and protons firing through a nuclear reactor, the
reaction of a social movement is never automatic. Malcom Gladwells
metaphor is imprecise: there is no tipping point. There are always just
people who either choose to tip it further or not. Each and every moment
contains the possibility that this social movement will either be furthered
or come to an end. There are people who choose to stay or not. People who
choose to leave a legacy and people who choose to leave. Each of us is
responsible for deciding the fate of this movement.****

But for me, the most important evidence of frisbees importance is personal:
One of the worst spates I had in the Delta was a month-and-a-half in which I
didnt go to Frisbee because I was too annoyed with a co-worker to face him,
even at frisbee. I was in a deep, angry, unsettled place professionally,
unlikely to emerge and, therefore, unlikely to stay any longer in the
Delta. But, once I did return to frisbee, the Frisbee field was a place
where me and my then-nemesis at the time could respect each other personally
even when we probably wanted to rip each others heads off professionally.
Character is revealed in these games and, by our actions on the field, I
think we could see each other as on the same basic moral team; even if we
missed someone wide open or got lazy on defense for a play, in a way,
showing up every week to Frisbee was a way of saying my bad to all the
ways we fucked up during the week at work and missed each other and missed
each other in life. You can see on the field that our intentions are
goodand that is enough for respect, even when other things are lacking.
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