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Lesson I


They saved the three- and four-year-olds till the last lesson of the day. By then, our crew had withered. We hung on the carts full of tennis balls, lunatic with dehydration.

I spent that summer doped up on Accutane -- an acne medication that would later be all but outlawed by the FDA for its potency and that was known for savaging the skin's resistance to any sunlight. Every day, I covered myself almost entirely in white cotton when teaching out on the hot courts. A bucket hat, high socks, low shorts, sunglasses, zinc oxide on my schnoz. I looked ridiculous, but I was determined to have clear skin by the time I arrived at college, even if it literally killed me in the process.

By 3PM, the sun would start to come down below the trees, promising shade. A breeze would come off the pool. We could all see it, like a blue mirage.

But 3PM also was when an army of pre-kindergarteners would spill out from the cabanas, dragged by Eastern European au pairs, bikini-clad mothers, and fathers with cell-phones in their ears. The little monsters dragged their rackets on the ground behind them and would start drawing in the clay the second they set foot on the courts.

Ryan, the Texan head pro, would assign students to each of us, plotting the courts on a clipboard. He always chewed his pencils. He drawled his ah sounds to the delight of the au pairs and the mothers. The fathers paid no attention at all. As though he were in another dimension. With his dark red-brown skin and deep-dark shades and his exaggerated ahs. He was still the help.

When we got our assignments, I would take our three or four students to our court and commence doing impersonations of Sesame Street characters and tossing tennis balls in wide arcs to kids that were barely three feet tall, but wore Ray-Bans and enormous sun hats.

"Why are you all red?" one would ask me.

"Yeah why?" another would echo, drawing a circle in the clay with his racket.

"Because I'm Elmo!" I would say. "And Elmo wants you to swing when I say one- two- three- swing."

Sometimes these kids would connect and, standing just ten feet away, I'd get knocked in the gut with a ball that came at me faster than anyone had reason to expect. Those were long days.

In the afternoons, after we had packed up the carts of tennis balls and put them away in the shed, I would go home and lay under the ceiling fan in the air conditioning of my room, icing my face, trying to cool off. I'd run cold water over my head in the shower, and wait until I started shivering. And I would plot what I would do when I attained escape velocity from the suburbs, from country clubs, from feeling like the help. I would get far, far away and all of this would seem even funnier. But I would remember it. I would remember it.