By Darius E. Bennett, Esq.
While reading this passage –part of his final letter to his daughter– one senses Ashe’s patience and worry, as well as a sense of urgency and fatherly insistence. He references, and leans heavily on, Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of Morning to teach the lessons of “a rock, a river, and a tree”; but also, to teach the cultural significance of a poem written by a Black woman, recited by that same Black woman, at the inauguration of the nation’s 42nd President. A Black woman, descended from slaves, for whom reading was disallowed. Ashe emphasized the poem’s rousing entreaty to act together in the direction of change, to answer this clarion call that had sounded for decades, but had been disregarded. Importantly, Ashe counsels his daughter to know her roots, nay reach down to the tap root of who she is so that she can understand her contribution to society at large and be firmly planted –like the tree– in the garden that variegates American culture, thereby calling forth change. As Dr. Angelou urges in the closing stanzas of On the Pulse, “Do not be wedded forever / To fear, yoked eternally / To brutishness.”
Like electricity, change is a flow of electric charge, destined to send waves of disruption and bursts of energy into life, a light diminishing the darkness.
For seven years I was a proud, self-taught tennis player; and, as long as my opponent was my then-fiancé, I was very good! (We were very good.) My former future-mother-in-law suggested that we join a league, and learn to play against other opponents. We both resisted, insisting that the tennis was part of our bond. (I would later realize that the resistance had been mine alone.) We did eventually join a doubles team. League tennis, playing other opponents, soon followed. It was when we began to play others that I realized that my game was not at all what I thought it was. In fact, it had multiple, glaring deficiencies! My brilliance had existed in a vacuum. I struggled for three years as one opponent after the other picked apart my resistance. I was vulnerable to the fragility of my ego, and as a consequence, my game would collapse under the weight of my own lofty, unfounded expectations. I had not changed, while others around me apparently had, including my fiancé. That was a shock. As life goes, we both began to change and our relationship no longer made sense. I hired a counselor for my head and heart, and a tennis coach for my game.
Mihai, a former promising junior from Romania, rebuilt my game from the ground up, brutally shattering my delusions of grandeur with a rather honest assessment of my self-taught abilities. He said, “You have good volleys. Your forehand is weird, but it works, although it is too flat and predictable. You have absolutely no backhand! And, you move strange on the court. If you buy a tennis hopper and 150 balls, I will re-build your game and give you a good backhand.” I gathered the shards of my destroyed confidence, thanked him, set an appointment for our next training, and drove directly to the local tennis store. I bought the balls and the tennis hopper, and I had my rackets re-strung according to Mihai’s advice.
I showed to my next training session open to change. Mihai, with one hand, and a quarter of his attentiveness, worked me side to side, forward and backward, all around the court. Every deficiency he observed, he built sturdy technique in its place. He used humor to rebuild my confidence, and indulged me with the occasional personal story about his years as a junior. Mihai, who had been a senior college student, finally graduated, and referred me to his friend Noah, also a former junior, this time from The Netherlands. Noah taught me how to move to the ball, as compared to flailing at it ungainly in response to my opponent’s strokes. He re-worked my serve, and indulged me with an occasional 6-0 trouncing in a practice set, usually in less than fifteen minutes, he most of the time playing half-heartedly. He then told me that it was time to get back into the league, and test out my new game. He encouraged me to not surrender to past bad habits, even when I was being defeated. I lost every match but two for an entire year! One evening, now in Miami, as I played against a former high school tennis athlete, all the change I had embraced for two humbling years began to show. I felt that there was nowhere my opponent could put the ball that was out of my reach. No serve failed me. No change of direction challenged my agility. I defeated him convincingly, and surprised myself!
As I drove home shocked and pensive, it was clear to me that remaining open to change had allowed me to grow in unexpected, thrilling ways. I only ever needed to let go of the past.