Of all my studies at a state college, there was one course that stayed fresher in mind than most, and which remains a wellspring of meaning and metaphor. And when learning stays alive like this, for nearly thirty years, I'm able forget, for a moment, what a rip-off and abomination higher education has become.
It wasn't math or science or philosophy, or even the English Lit that I still bang around behind me, like tin cans tied to the honeymoon Chevy Nova. It was the phys-ed requirement. Oddly, I haven't been to a bowling alley more than twice in twenty years, but the course in bowling I took has been so dear to the heart that I sometimes stare at my gym bag and blast Lulu's song "To Sir With Love" on the portable stereo. That instructor turned the college course into a 'special relationship.'
He was a man with a method, and a man who believed in bowling. It was more than a sport to him. As much as a really good score, like 150 or better, he was a sportsman who appreciated the human form in motion, and could see in his work young people flowing through space like Baryshnikov, though on the other side of the tracks. It's not all about winning, which is great, because I wasn't planning to.
He seemed to take a special liking to me. More than once, when he had a chance away from prying ears, he confided that I was among the most graceful bowlers he had ever seen. When it was my turn to roll, he would often watch from directly behind, and admire my four steps, the clockwork timing in pushing the ball forward (most important component of proper bowling method,) the pendulous backward swing of gravity as the keggler takes the ball behind the fourth rib, then that final step and the release. Speaking of release, this wasn't the first time a gym teacher seemed to enjoy watching the way I move my ass.
During his lectures on the subject, the instructor made his point that bowling was sensual. The sight of the ball curving into the pocket, leading the orgasmic crash of pins, is like creation itself as falling pins add up on your score sheet. And then all the hidden meaning.
A seven-ten split, for instance, reminds me of how hopeless the economy is. A gutter ball mirrors all incidents of human failure, with descent into dark nowhere. My last girlfriend was a gutterball. She thinks the same about me, and we only went bowling together once. That's how precise the sport of bowling is in reflecting the warts and moles in human nature. A strike is one discrete unit of victory. Twelve strikes in a row is a perfect game with a score of 300. Angelic. Angels are said to be perfect. And when you pick up a spare,it is redemptive, like picking up the pieces of your shattered social life. Just now, my love life is an open frame.
That teacher was probably married with kids, but like so many athletic coaches, it is across their own genders that they find the secrets of the soul. He took me aside once to tell me, personally, how a bowling team is the most important relationship in a man's life. You can't compare family responsibilities to the obligation to fellow man. Score too low too often, and you could be off the team all together. Or you might just bring the whole team down, if you don't force yourself to excell. He told me again that I had beautiful bowling form, and might have a future, if not as a pro, as a man among men. At the bowling alley. With men like him.
But when all was rolled and scored, at the end of the semester, I got a B and not the A I thought he was going to give me for my phys ed requirement. The dissappointing grade may have reflected some disappointment he felt, as if the love of bowling could be unrequited. Then, too, he may have been a closet queen who hoped to score with a lithe young stallion bowler, maybe the prettiest horse on the lanes. That course in bowling made me feel pretty.