Right around the time our reading club got underway, I began my tenure at a local high school as a student teacher. I adore academia, even if my university doesn’t quite compare to the Midwestern charm of Westish. The layout is utilitarian, the grounds Spartan. We have no lakes, president-filled or otherwise.
I was warned about the demands of student teaching, and these warnings were apt. I haven’t watched a single pitch of playoff baseball this season. Essentially, The Art of Fielding has been my postseason, and without it, my sense of alienation would be nearly palpable. Stacks of textbooks on education theory and articles on critical literacy have replaced the game for me, and my head has been swimming with conceptual theories. It was only inevitable that these ideas would bleed into the novel itself, as we headed toward the novel’s denouement.
In a conversation Eric mentioned the uselessness of the Harpooners coaching staff, especially the well-meaning, ineffective Coach Cox. The man reminds me of an older, mellower portrayal of Jim Bouton’s Joe Schultz, a study in the virtues that are respected in baseball and are useless in everyday life. Cox is helpless before Owen’s hospitalization, Schwartz’s fiery leadership, and Henry’s downfall. He’s ceremonial, a reminder that most managers receive far more than they deserve in terms of pay and accolades. The students change with every passing year, but Cox is always there, always the same, always losing.
What Harbach illustrates is that fielding and baseball really are an art, rather than a craft. One’s ability is innate. Owen puts down his novel, walks into the batting cage and sprays line drives. Henry pirouettes effortlessly, thoughtlessly. Strong coaching can maximize potential, add endurance and strength through countless hours of training. But that potential is finite and predetermined. For a teacher, it’s a troubling concept.
So as the book wound down, and I prepared to bid baseball adieu for another winter, I found my sentimentality waxing with the somber funeral march/row. Soaked with alcohol, Freud’s solution for the masses, the gang finds itself on the brink of inexorable change, and I too found myself pausing between page turns, hoping to hold it back.
So as Schwartz takes up the mantle of teaching, and walks out to the familiar field to hit ground balls to his familiar friend, I finally identified with him. This is what teaching is like, I thought. Maybe Schwartz can make a difference, fix Henry and blend as gracefully into Westish as Affenlight had. Maybe something can be taught, and that not everyone has to repeat every last mistake in life. I hope that last throw found its way to the shovel.