(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
When I first began to teach physical education at Cambridge Montessori School, I visited each classroom at snack time to introduce myself. For a 23-year-old teacher, this was absolutely terrifying.
In the first classroom, after my trembling introduction, a third grader named Allie raised her hand.
“Are you nice?” she asked, flashing a disarming smile. “You look nice.”
Over the years Allie grew into a spindly and talented athlete, and during soccer season she occasionally played goalie. When she was an eighth grader, we were locked in a high-scoring battle with a rival school. Late in the game, with our team ahead by a goal, Allie made save after save, preserving the lead.
With only a couple of minutes remaining, the other team was awarded a penalty kick. It was November, near the end of the season, and dusk came on quick. From our vantage point on the sideline we could barely see the far end of the field, where the other team’s best player lined up over the ball, ready to tie the score. Allie bounced nervously in the net, never having faced a penalty kick before.
The referee blew the whistle, and the player took his shot. The ball was a white blur hurtling towards the back of the net. Allie stepped quickly to her right, catching the ball in her midsection and doubling over, literally saving the game. Our team jumped for joy, and our assistant coach let out a very un-Montessori whoop, but Allie remained on the ground. The ref, believing she was injured, called me out onto the field.
I ran over to Allie.
“Allie, that was incredible! Are you okay?”
She straightened, the ball still clasped in her hands, and I saw that tears were streaming down her face.
“I just . . . I didn’t know I could do that,” Allie said.
My students cry all the time. Our school is a waterworks factory, and business is booming. The kids let tears fly with refreshing abandon, for reasons both momentous and hilarious. I try very hard not to laugh when a student is crying, but the slapstick comedy of a dodgeball to the groin is something I’m afraid social convention will never age out of me.
There are times when I ache for my students, who lose pets, break bones, and experience cruelty. There are times when I dust them off and send them back into the fray, or give them space. Most of them will eventually grow out of their tendency for frequent tears and this is probably a good thing. Refreshing abandon quickly turns to alarming instability the older you get, and, like all emotions, crying is healthiest in moderation. But I also hope my students don’t lose the vulnerability that allows them to approach the world so openly. I hope they don’t put up walls, because as Allie made so clear, it’s only by venturing outside of those walls that we can do what we didn’t know was possible.
Recently, in gym, I was wearing my Jimmy V sweatshirt, featuring the impassioned college basketball coach with his arms raised in victory above the words, “Laugh Think Cry.” Valvano’s team won the 1983 National Championship, and just before dying of cancer in 1993, he gave a courageous and tender speech at the ESPY awards.
One of my students raised his hand. “What’s, uh, laughthinkcry?” he asked, jamming the words together as if they were the name of a horse.
“Laugh, think, cry,” I said. “This basketball coach, Jimmy V, believed it was the three things you should do every single day.”
Being a teacher means I’m guaranteed a laugh, and, as a former philosophy major, I’d like to think that I think. But crying is something I almost never do. When I was in third grade, two friends and I engaged in the kind of brutally honest conversation that social convention quickly ages out of you. While enjoying an after-school snack, we had the bright idea to express what it was that annoyed us the most about one another. When it came to me, my friends were unanimous: I was a crybaby.
I bravely managed to withhold my tears at this revelation. Upon reflection, I realized that I did cry a lot. I cried if we lost a soccer game; I cried at movies; I cried when I mistakenly said in class that Buffalo was the capital of New York. I became deeply ashamed of crying, and from then on worked hard to repress the tears. For the most part, it worked.
When I was 19, I made my first trip to the Zen Center of Ottawa. Though I’d been practicing on my own for a couple of years, this was the first time that I would sit in a formal setting with real monastics. It was only a one-day retreat, but I couldn’t believe how grueling sitting for a whole day could be. I ran the gamut of emotions, often in the span of a few breaths, vowing never to return and moments later to ordain. Thankfully, I did neither. I continued to sit, marveling at how much my knees could ache; at the flashes of exhilaration and the competing flashes of extreme boredom that could occur while staring at a wall; at the dignity, dedication, and kindness of the monastics. During a break I watched one student sip his coffee with the kind of care and attention typically reserved for open-heart surgery, an image that has stayed with me and bolstered my practice for years.
When I left the retreat that night, I cried. I wasn’t exactly sure why I was crying, and had I known tears would be the outcome, I probably would have come up with a reason not to go. Instead, I sat in the car and wept, and was grateful that I had the opportunity to trade the walls I’d put up for the walls of the monastery, if only for a day.
I don’t cry every single day. My routine is more laugh, think, sit. But, thanks to my students, I’m constantly reminded that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength. It takes tremendous bravery to remain open to the world, to take on challenges with an uncertain outcome, and to venture beyond the walls of your comfort zone. Within the walls of the gym, we not only value movement, but the capacity to be moved.
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