Growing up, we had a barn where my mom parked the family station wagon—metallic blue with faux wood siding. The large upstairs was filled with old furniture, a ping pong table, and a decrepit piano that came with the house. The barn had an enormous heavy black wooden door that proved to be the perfect place for me to throw a tennis ball for hours on end. Often I was outside because my mother had sent me, closed the door, and told me not to come in until dinner. Lest you think I grew up in some sort of Dickensonian family drama, I am sure that the slam dunks I regularly practiced on the nerf hoop behind the kitchen door played a role in my banishment.
If I bounced the tennis ball just right, I could induce epic fly balls, screeching line drives, and lightning-fast grounders. Mimicking radio announcers Ned Martin and Johnny Pesky calling the action, I played and won multiple World Series games with a roaring crowd that only I could hear. When my mother called me in for dinner, I would race up to the back door with a bounce of a champion, out of breath and emotionally drained.
Walking around campus over the last couple of weeks reminded me of those times when I imagined myself living my childhood dreams. I wondered how many of our younger students find escape during recess—summiting the playground structure or excavating in the sandbox as if they were the great mountaineers or explorers of history. When they practice or rehearse alone, do our Middle and Upper School students transport themselves to iconic arenas or stages where they rise heroically to the challenge before them? I hope so. I worry that too much of our lives today are choreographed where efficiency and measurable outcomes are the barometers of their value, tethering our imagination to an incomplete or a flawed sense of purpose. The freedom to experience triumphant moments, even if just in our minds, is a gift and one that I hope we can make space for in the busyness of our lives.
On winter evenings it would take a while for me to shed my coat, but with time my body warmed and loosened up as the pitch count rose. It probably took me just as long to stop thinking about how unfair it was that my mom made me go outside. I don’t think she had any grand plan about encouraging my imagination—getting me out of the kitchen so she could cook in peace was her priority. Still, those moments serve as essential reminders that play doesn’t have to be purposeful and purpose doesn’t always have to be what it seems.