by Eric Proctor (Catawba College News Service)
I used to be the kid at tennis camp who tried to hit the ball as hard as he could ... over the fence, or better yet, at the instructor. Now, I'm on the other side of the net, dodging balls while campers laugh at the occasional one that hits my leg.
And, I couldn't be happier.
As I help the kids pick up the balls they've dispersed all over the court, I try to make small talk. Asking them questions makes the process a lot more bearable.
Almost mechanically, I'll ask, "So, where do you go to school?"
Whenever I hear the response "Salisbury Academy," I tell them that I logged two years of my schooling behind its doors. And then, as I'm served a dose of nostalgia, I tell them that's where I learned to play tennis.
It started just like any other composite of our P.E. course. A box to be checked off, just like soccer and handball. It was even played at the same place — the Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department.
Our instructor, Susan Saunders, who had a remarkable college career at N.C. State University, told me I had great hands at the net. I owe all that I have achieved today to this simple compliment. For the time being, it was enough to do the impossible ... get me to trade in the baseball bat I had been swinging for six years for a tennis racquet.
This tennis racquet was passed down to me from my grandmother, who taught a P.E. class of her own at Gardner-Webb University. She had purchased it at a yard sale.
I returned to the courts at the Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department for additional group clinics with Susan. With my second-hand racquet in tow, I joined a slew of serious players who had been playing long before they could tie their own tennis shoes.
"Don't slice the ball!" they would chastise as I hit it back to my opponent.
I didn't even know what a slice was.
Since I was used to having the ball slammed down my throat by these seasoned players, I was a bit hesitant to speak up when my teacher at West Rowan Middle School asked if anyone had any experience with the sport. He was trying to recruit for the team he coached, and I reluctantly joined.
Before I knew it, I was playing the top position. Since this required a lot, I had to improve my skills fast, which meant more clinics. This time, my mother enrolled me in a camp at Davidson College.
Years later, I would return to the courts at Davidson. This time, however, I was not there to learn; I was there to compete for Gardner-Webb University ... the same school at which my grandmother, who had bought me my first racquet, had once taught tennis.
I also returned once again to the courts at the Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department, to assume the position that Susan had occupied when she changed my life. I know the value of a simple compliment. My encouragement may make some of the campers decide to go on to be college players or even instructors. That's why, as I duck to avoid their shots, I look up with an impressed expression and say, "Nice forehand!"
Eric Proctor of Salisbury is a rising senior and student athlete at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. He is employed this summer assisting Catawba College Tennis Coach Jeff Childress with tennis camps on campus and is also completing a writing internship in the Catawba College Public Relations Office.