B-plus

Living a double life as studious teenage tennis champ and dope-smoking, lost child, I couldn't find peace until I gave up competition.


Anne Lamott
January 29, 1999 2:29PM (UTC)

I was on tennis courts all over California the year we invaded Cambodia, the year Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died, the year the students were killed at Kent State. I was at tournaments up and down the state with my doubles partner Bee. I was sixteen, a little bit fat in the can by now. Her mother Mimi drove us around the state in an old Country Squire station wagon. My own mother didn't know how to drive, and besides, she was putting herself through law school. We hardly saw her.

Mimi had prematurely white hair and a huge smile, sang songs from musicals as she drove along, and always reminded me of Carol Channing. She used to say that I was the most "utterly marvelous girl." Bee and I had been ranked number one in the state the year before in sixteen-and-under doubles, but my game was beginning to fall apart. In singles, Bee was thriving, but I was no longer in the top ten and that was very painful. I had two lives now, one with Bee on the green hardcourts and occasional grass, and one with Pammy, with whom I now went to school. We attended a little hippie high school in San Francisco and were two of the best students. There were fifty kids in my graduating class, many of them troubled children from San Francisco's socialite families. It was 1970 and we were smoking a lot of dope, which we could buy upstairs on the second floor of the schoolhouse in the student lounge. Two kids overdosed on heroin that year, although only one died, and a sweet rich boy of fifteen, on LSD, ran into the surf at Ocean Beach and was never seen again. We could buy balls of hashish soaked in opium for five dollars each. Pammy and I were getting drunk whenever possible, and then I was showing up for tennis matches hungover and really uninterested, except that I loved Bee and Mimi so much and had spent the last four years practically living at their house. They were wealthy, and Mimi had exquisite taste. I rarely saw the Christian Scientists anymore, though Pammy was still close to them. We all went to different schools, and I did not live near them on the lagoon, as Pammy did, so although I still loved them, I was with Bee and Mimi now. Mimi was an artist, a painter, who claimed me as daughter number two. She and Bee fought; she and I didn't. Bee and I wore our hair in pigtails, tied in bright ribbons. Bee had brown hair, brown eyes, brown limbs, freckles.

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Pammy looked like a Renaissance angel in tie-dye, with white-blonde electric hair the color of Maryiln Monroe's, angel hair like you put on Christmas trees, and her skin was as fair as a baby's. Her breasts were large, and she was always a little overweight; she refused for political reasons to be thin. We were high on the women's movement; the voices from New York were like foghorns saving us in the night, but they also frightened us because they were so strident. I spent the night at Pammy's a lot; there we could swim in the lagoon, or sunbathe on the dock, and get away with almost anything, day or night. So Pammy and I sailed and swam and smoked dope and drank "spoolie-oolies," which were glasses of red wine and 7UP. We listened to Stephane Grapelli, because Pammy played flute, and we listened to Scott Joplin before anyone else, because she also played classical piano. She took lessons from an old blind Russian named Lev Shore, who was the father she should have had. Her father was still in prison. She was a little in love with my father, who was so much hipper than most of the other dads. He still lived with my mother, although things had continued to deteriorate around our house. But he took Pammy, my younger brother, and me to the beach on weekends, and his friends smoked dope with us and served us jug red wine.

I wasn't thinking about God that much, except that when I was stoned I felt a mystical sense of peace and expansion, and I secretly thought I might become a Buddhist one of these days. There were many Buddhists my father admired -- Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Alan Watts. My father by then was practicing transcendental meditation, which he'd first investigated for a book he wrote while Ronald Reagan was governor, called "Anti California: Report from Our First Para-Fascist State."

At any rate, Pammy and I had an English teacher our sophomore year whom we loved, a large long-haired woman named Sue who wore purple almost exclusively and was a friendly hippie sort. She was one of the best teachers I've ever had. Her hair fell to her chair like a puppet-show curtain. She made you want to be a teacher, to throw the lights on for children that way.


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After school Pammy and I would drive home in her mother's car or hitchhike if we'd ridden in on the ferry, and then she would go off to her music lessons, and I would go to practice with Bee at the courts by the deserted railroad tracks.

Pammy and I did really well in school, mostly A's and A-minuses, a few B-pluses. At Pammy's house, she and her three sisters forged their mother Mary's signature to their report cards, since Mary was such a mess she did not seem to be aware that report cards needed to be signed or, for that matter, were even given out. In a way life was easier there than over at my house, because at least it was consistent: Mary was always a drunken mess, Pammy's father was always in prison. Over at my house, things could go any number of ways. I have read since that this is how you induce psychosis in rats: you behave inconsistently with them; you keep changing the rules. One day when they press down the right lever, expecting a serving of grain like they've always gotten before, they instead get a shock. And eventually the switching back and forth drives them mad, while the rats who get shocked every time they press the lever figure it out right away and work around it. Pammy worked around it. She had other mothers, like I did, and inside herself she grew the mother she had needed all those years.

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So I was doing well academically, and I was a well-ranked tennis player and was the apple of my handsome father's eye -- and then I would bring home a report card with a B-plus on it, and my parents would look at the report card as if I'd flunked. "Uh, honey?" one of them would ask, looking perplexed. "Now, this isn't a criticism but, if you could get a B-plus in philosophy, how much harder would it have been to get an A-minus?"

It never once occurred to me to stare back at them and say, "What a crock." I just felt shame that I had disappointed them again, and I felt that if I could do a little better, Mom and Dad would get along again, my big brother would come home more often, and neither my mom nor my brother Steve would be fat. Stevo was the only person in the family who loved and was loved by every other member of the family, but -- or so -- he was the sacrificial lamb, hiding politely upstairs in his room, watching our small TV, tending to his baseball-card collection. If I could just do a little better, I would finally have the things I longed for -- a sense of OKness and connection and meaning and peace of mind, a sense that my family was OK and that we were good people. I would finally know that we were safe, and that my daddy wasn't going to leave us, and that I would be loved someday.

Drugs helped. More than anything else, they gave me the feeling that I was fine and life was good and something sacred shimmered at its edges. Being sexual with boys helped, too. Being sexual with anybody helped -- there was a girl named Deborah at our school, a full-tilt hippie who wore her long blonde hair up and antique lace blouses over Indian-print skirts and who looked like Liv Ullman. She used to hold a Lifesaver between her teeth and have me close mine around the half that was showing so that our lips, our open mouths, met as I'd take the Lifesaver into my own mouth, and I would feel my insides grow hard and quivery. Being loved by my teachers helped, but then report cards would come out, and once again I would think I had fallen short.

I was thirty-five when I discovered that a B-plus was a really good grade.

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I played tennis all that summer of 1970, sometimes hungover, always finding the kids at the tournament dances who had the beer or the Boone Farm strawberry wine, and I drank with them while Bee went to bed early. Someone would find me half passed out with boys on boats, or barfing in the girls' room, or smoking a joint in someone's car, and I would be delivered home. Once I played a finals match with a huge blister on my top lip, the kind nursing babies get, only I got mine from trying to get one more hit off a roach the size of a grain of rice. When I was with Pammy, between tournaments, tanning on the dock of her house, slathered in baby oil, listening to her mother rant around inside, I felt like I could breathe. When I spent the night there, we'd stay up watching Dick Cavett with her older sister, and her mother would wake up long enough to come into the TV room and screech, "I hate you fucking goddamn shitfuck Lamotts, and your father's Commie bullshit," and we'd all say, "Hi, Mary," or "Hi, Mom," and she'd say, "OK, well, good night, girls, good night, Annie," and we'd all say liltingly, "Good niiiiight," without taking our eyes off the screen.

When I stayed at Bee's house, we went to bed early, giggled all night in the dark, then got up early, ate protein for breakfast, and headed to the courts.

When Pammy and I returned to school in the fall of my junior year, terrible news unfolded: our English teacher Sue had become a born-again Christian. And apparently all the students who were her friends, about a dozen or so, had been brought into the fold during the later summer, and now they all met in the courtyard during lunch to pray, to read from the Bible, and to beam at each other with amusement. Sue would still hand out the most wonderful poems in her class -- Sylvia Plath and Auden, T.S. Eliot, Ferlinghetti -- but now she interpreted everything in Christian terms; it was all viewed through Christ's eyes and determined to be about resurrection or original sin. Ferlinghetti writing "I am waiting for the rebirth of wonder" opened the way for a short talk on the hunger of the unsaved person; Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" was about her father, of course, but it also referred to Jehovah. I wept in Sue's class at the betrayal, and at her gentle patronizing efforts to console me.

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Then Pammy and I fought back. We read the great atheists, studied their reasoning, especially Bertrand Russell's essay "Why I Am Not a Christian," which we basically memorized. We challenged Sue on everything, every assertion, even when she was right. When we studied the Dylan song "Dear Landlord," I valiantly tried to convince the class that Dylan was actually peeved with the earthly and unjust owner of the house that he was renting. Sue and the saved students listened with great gentleness and then looked tenderly around the room at one another.

I realized for the first time in my life that I was capable of murder.

I told my father that night, and he was deeply sympathetic, since no one disliked Christians more than he. He offered me a glass of wine with dinner. My mother was in the city studying for a law school exam. My dad and I ended up getting drunk together for the first time. Emboldened by the wine, I asked him how he'd feel if I quit competitive tennis. He'd never been that keen on it to begin with, as he was not at all athletic, and he said I should do whatever my heart told me. When I went to bed that night, I knew my tennis days were over, and when I finished my last year as Bee's doubles partner in the girls sixteen-and-under, I gave my racket to the Goodwill, and I never got another migraine again.

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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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