1 of 2 Groups

Carl Winderl

© Copyright 2015 by Carl Winderl


Student at green board with math problem.

In high school, or so it seemed to me, all of the students could be put into 1 of 2 groups: those who were really good at math, the 1’s who were whizzes at it actually, that it just came to ever so naturally, effortlessly: always, all the impossibly right answers, right away, and with such an air of sprezzatura as well; and then there were those who just never got it at all. No matter what.

I was in that 2nd group.

Oh, I tried to be in that 1st group. Sometimes I was faking it; other times I was just a closet wannabe. But I did work at it legitimately, even took Plane Geometry sophomore year, the advanced section, no less. And was really good at straight-lines and near-perfect freehand circles, but not so hot at the theorems. Which is what really counted. I guess I was the mathematical equivalent of cannon fodder; I was in there so that the real math genius stars could burn brightly, brighter, & brightest, only with little or no effort.

Junior year I signed up for Algebra II, even let myself be put into the maniacal Mr. Flaherty’s section; he was shamelessly and artfully dodging the draft, to stay out of Viet Nam any way he could, and so had lowered himself, he was sure to remind us, to teach himself German so that he could teach a couple of German classes and thus keep the Draft Board off his back. And he guiltlessly admitted that his lesson plans for his German classes were only cobbled to please his department head, that he really only stayed a class or 2 ahead of his students. Sometimes, he smirked, he often merely kept even with them.

But in our Algebra II class all he had to do was show up to teach us; he’d clearly always been in that group 1 of the highly favored students. Thus why else had the language gods so blessed him with a facile and adept way with German. Afterall, what was that language but an equally rigid systematic, predictable, & unyielding algorithmic series of permutations based solely upon letters thinly disguised as guttural commands. Even Mark Twain knew that. And I concurred, that an algebraic equation differed little from a German sentence; all you had to do was dive into it, swim to the length of it, and surface wet, shivery, and glistening with a verb in your mouth. Or with an a/b or x>y or some such extrapolation, all dripping with moisture.

In my senior year, however, I firmly made official my entrenchment in that 2nd group of poverty-stricken formulists when I agreed to take Trigonometry & Analytical Geometry. Mrs. Jensen was the teacher, and she insisted I needed it for college. “You are going to college, aren’t you, Mr. Winderl?” Her part-cajoling, part-coercion, part-guilt-tripping-me rings still in my ears.

I was so cowed.

But I also so religiously coveted group 1 status.

Plus, she was my 1st female math teacher since 7th grade. And I always did better with women teachers, and they always seemed to like me, at least a little, I think.

Until my senior-year growth spurt, I was always undersized, rather on the thinnish side, and kind of waifish looking, or so 1 of my 1st high school unrequited heart-throbs once observed. She meant it kindly, I think. But then, as I recall, she also was in that 1st group.

But I barely survived that senior year ordeal in Trig & Analyt, as we blithely referred to it then. Both groups did, as I also recall, because of course we “2nd-ers” had to emulate and imitate those in the “1st Group”: the favored 1’s.

However, after 6 weeks or thereabouts, I was hopelessly lost in that class.

Mostly because my dipsomaniac and itinerant father had moved back in, at about that time, the middle of October – just in time for my 17th birthday: what a present.

Soon after – true to form – he went on a “bender,” a series of them at 2-week intervals, of, for even him, epic proportions. Then right after New Year’s, he abruptly left us. Swearing he’d never come back. Or so my younger sisters and I hoped.

And he “disowned” us, which he swore, heading out the door, amid all the other swearing. Well, for about the umpteenth time we were disowned, so that threat didn’t much faze us either.

But the real distraction to math class, and life, was that thanks to the beginning of my long-awaited growth spurt and a summer’s extra due diligence working out and playing hoop non-stop when I wasn’t day-slaving away for Pete Brinn’s lawn maintenance service at $1.35 an hour, I had a really good shot at cracking the starting line-up of the varsity basketball team.

So, I fell behind in Trig & Analyt, and farther and farther behind, in the “Trig” section of the first six weeks. And as any group 2-er knows, falling behind spells disaster and dooms the lollygagger to alwaysplaying catch-up. And playing catch-up in a math class, for me, I knew meant extinction. This was long-before Hilary Rodham Clinton’s self-proclaimed “No Child Left Behind!” became the educational watchword and song. I was of the generation that still believed in the Reichstag Motto which Mr. Flaherty so kindly, wistfully, and condescendingly had referred to almost daily in his classroom: “they shoot their wounded, -- Alge-brats!” (Sometimes he called us “Algae-brats”; I suppose for variety’s sake. Boy, nobody ever slept in that class. Or texted. Or IM-ed. Or Instagrammed. Etc.)

But then heaven-sent along into my Trig & Analyt life came Julie Rivers. To my rescue.

Julie was a junior in a class that was 50-50 seniors and juniors; she was on the Math Fast Track (to take Math 5 her senior year – basically a Pre-Calc/Calculus class); and she was one of the ace tennis players on the women’s varsity, even had been Number 1 in her sophomore year, so played 1st singles every year. She was a star on the court. And in that classroom. She was most definitely in Groupo Numero Uno.

And she sat in the row right next to mine and in the seat right next to mine. So she had a direct line to my daily struggles, turmoils, angst, anguish, & anxiety; all the trials & tribulations I suffered & endured over quizzes, tests, & even daily assignments: all so much more than an open book to her sight lines.

But her butt was bigger than mine.

Well, I always was on the slight side. Even now, still am. And even with my incipient growth spurt I was not much more than a rail or “a long tall drink of water,” as one of the assistant coaches still referred to me on occasion. Even in college, a girl I was dating, after a ballgame one night, told me I possessed a lean and lanky look on the court. I’d kind of hoped she was going to say “I had a lean and hungry look” about me, since she was an English major and always went on & on & on about how she just loved & adored Shakespeare and would later go on to earn a Ph.D. in Foucault & Deconstructionism and become some high-powered literary critic in Women’s Studies. But to the point, I pretty much always was and still am on the slimmish side.

If anyone had walked cold into that Trig & Analyt classroom and seen us all sitting in our chairs, that visitor’s eyes probably would have gone straight to Julie Rivers sitting there, all blonde & dark-eyed with her pert wet-look pageboy that allowed her to easily shake out her damp hair, either on the claycourts or fresh from the showers. She was a looker. As long as she was sitting down.

But when she stood up, you could tell she was a little bottom-heavy. Just noticeably so. But still it was noticeable. To say she was pear-shaped would be kind of unfair. Maybe to some pears.

I suppose that’s maybe why she was such a good, strong tennis player, particularly from the baseline. Those thighs & glutes could really drive the ball, and helped her to cover the court so well, especially alley to alley.

Years later, I was watching “The Breakfast Club,” and when a very young Demi Moore in-character said she made it a rule never to date a guy with a waistline smaller than her own, referring to Rob Lowe’s character in the movie, I thought of Julie.

All comparisons aside, or put behind, I realized I really needed some Group 1 help.

When the 1st 9-week grade report came out I’d “earned” a B- in Trig & Analyt. I was not encouraged. Stunned. But not encouraged.

I knew what that grade meant. At the beginning of those 9 weeks I’d been doing A work, but at the end of the marking period I was doing C- work, if that. I might have been in Group 2, but I knew enough Algebra and how to average in order to compute what that B- really meant. If I’d been in a German class that B- would have been translated to an “L.” Right on my forehead. Or possibly tattooed on my wrist.

That grade also meant I needed help for certain. More than the occasional “clarification” from Julie leaning over from her desk to mine whenever I looked confused over a problem during ‘free time’ in class. Or when I was paired with her for board work, ironically enough, since Mrs. Jensen obviously had observed Julie’s informal ‘free time’ help sessions with me.

And that grade also meant, or so I hoped at the time, that Mrs. Jensen might like me a little. I knew that to be a fact after the next marking period when my grade was C; that was at mid-season. And then the 3rd 9-week session yielded a C-, which was truly a gift, even though it was too late for Christmas. But I just as gratefully accepted it in the Spirit of the Season of Giving.

As for my final grade in that class, I don’t remember. Honestly, I don’t even know if I ever looked at that line on my final report card. All I know is I passed, I graduated, I went on to college. But I didn’t necessarily conquer. I’d done all right though, I guess.

At 1 particular point in time I knew pretty much for sure Mrs. Jensen liked me, even if I was firmly ensconced in Group 2, and probably, hopefully, was dead center in her bell curve.

About mid-season I’d been selected as Player-of-the-Week for both Broward and Dade Counties. It was a pretty big deal honor in those days, or so I kept hearing afterwards. As such I was to be the subject of a 10-minute interview on radio station WFTL, Fort Lauderdale’s then flagship AM station. I didn’t even know about the radio thing, that it even existed along with the award, until I was selected. Oh, and this too, I was given a pretty nifty trophy as part of all the hoopla.

What that mostly meant was that on Saturday afternoon my mom had to drive me down to the WFTL radio station way out west of downtown Fort Lauderdale, almost to the start of Alligator Alley, where I’d tape the interview that would be replayed several times during the next week.

I talked about pretty basic stuff: recounting my exploits in the week’s past 3 games, which allowed me to garner the award; other aspects of my season so far, and the team’s too in general; a brief player bio; what the rest of the season looked like; and my thoughts and plans after high school. They’d prepped me ahead of time as to the kinds of questions I’d be asked, and we sort of followed a set Q&Ascript. But it was still pretty heady stuff for a kid who wasn’t expected to even crack the starting lineup after his junior year of mostly riding the pine. As the 12th man on a 12-man squad

Afterall, I’d never been a star, as such, ever before in anything in my whole entire life.

But as I said, the growth spurt had started to kick in and all the summer off-season hard work was beginning to pay dividends.

So on Monday morning I dragged my own sorry skinny butt ever reluctantly into Trig & Analyt, my 1st period class, and after we’d all settled in to start our day, Mrs. Jensen ever so cheerily announced, “Class, today, we have a celebrity in our midst.”

She paused.

Everyone looked around, probably some of the group 1-ers were wondering which 1 of them had hit the scholarship lottery and would be attending MIT on a full-ride math scholarship.

Mrs. Jensen resumed, “This morning on my drive in to school, my husband and I were listening to the radio, and who should we hear but Mr. Winderl being interviewed on WFTL for being Player-of-the-Week. The first PBSHS athlete to be honored so in any sport thus far this year.”

She paused again.

I felt the blood rush to my face. And I could feel all the eyes of both groups swing in my direction. I looked up to see Julie beaming at me. And I’m relatively certain a number of group 1’s were calculating the odds to my on-court demise and with actuarial precision predicting how my point-per-game average would dip precipitously what with all the box-and-1 and double-team defenses I was sure to see for the rest of the season.

And they would be right: on both counts.

I myself had already figured out my seasonal p.p.g. avg. had climbed 4.7 for the last week’s effort, a pretty good jump I thought since we were at mid-season. I know I could have plotted my progression on an x-y axis and probably configured some asymptotic formula to assess the ratio of output and effort-to-result on a real tangential slope – but that would have required more Julie-time. And I was starting to feel the increasingly stronger pangs of guilt for not spending more non-Trig & Analyt time with her.

Quite obviously though, I was clearly focusing the precision of my accuracy on the arc of a ball 29 inches in circumference released from the fingertips of a fully extended arm on a 6-foot 1-inch body elevated approximately 16 inches off the floor into a cylinder 18 inches in diameter located 10 feet above the court, at a variable distance of 6 to 20 feet from the point of release.

As it was, I know I should have kissed her the last time we worked together, alone in one of the back study rooms of the library, with her chair right up next to mine, touching, and her repeated long-held glances at me from just beneath her mascara-lidded eyes. But I feared the make-out session those holdover looks might turn into, and the resulting problems for us, in class, and out of class, and for all future math 1-on-1’s with her. Plus, she’d already more than once invited me over to her house – “My mother wouldn’t mind at all, . . . even if she was home . . . ” – for ‘help,’ if I wanted it.

And then Mrs. Jensen brought us all back to reality with “and since Mr. Winderl has been so honored, I think we should let him choose which of today’s problems we should start with.”

Again the pause, to look and smile at me. “Well, Mr. Winderl?” her smiling eyes met mine. I smiled in return and held her gaze. Fortunately, I had struggled through the 5 problems everso mightily the night before. And as always, Mrs. Jensen had assigned among the 5 a “bunny.” That’s what Coach Morris, my basketball coach, called an uncontested lay-up.

Mrs. Jensen must have assumed my smile and prolonged eye contact meant I was “ready,” for she followed up her “honorific” with an invitation to put my choice on the board.

And so I remember striding to the board, for once without Julie at my side, and received the chalk from Mrs. Jensen’s hand into mine as if I was accepting the ball from the ref at the freethrow line to shoot “1 and the bonus” with 8 seconds on the clock: PBSHS down by 1. And like in that game against Carol City when I hit both ends of that 1-and-1 to win the game, by 1, with 8 seconds to go, so I succeeded at the board that day.

And Carol City was an away game.

Standing at the board that day though, I had home-court advantage.

Plus because, out of the day’s assignment to be put on the board, I chose the bunny.

No doubt all the 1-ers knew I’d chosen the bunny, along with Mrs. Jensen too, but I didn’t care. And maybe only some of the 2-ers knew that also. Still I didn’t care much. Even on the court, a guy could still miss a bunny. I had before. Against Cardinal Gibbons earlier in the season I had. And I would again. And did, in college too. But not often. Only rarely.

But not on that day in Trig & Analyt.

Somehow though I made it through that course, all the way to graduation. Between Mrs. Jensen and Julie I did.

I made it through the season too, of course. And made it through to the end of the school year without the old man rearing his head ever again at the homefront. Once he’d finally left home for good.

And then I had made it through to almost the end of the summer.

With a little less than a month to go before I was to leave for college, 1500 miles from home, on a full-ride basketball scholarship, and for the rest of my life: I had just finished a couple hours of playing hoop at the lighted Lighthouse Point community outdoor basketball court, the same court I’d been playing on for the past 3 years to hone my hoop skills. Nearly adjacent to the hoop court were 2 lighted tennis courts where I sometimes had seen Julie playing over the same last couple or so years.

I hadn’t seen her since school ended, but as I walked off the courts that night there she was with a couple of junior high tennis hopefuls she’d obviously been coaching. She hadn’t been playing but stood there in a white PBSHS varsity tennis collar-shirt untucked over a pair of white cut-off jeans that made her bottom seem more ample than usual. And she had on white tennis shoes with the low-cut white tennis socks that had the little white puffball dangling just over the heel of her shoe. And she was very tan against all that white.

Her hair of course looked magnificent, her smile sparkled, even without the braces it would have, and a little moustache of perspiration beaded her upper lip on that sultry breathless Florida late summer night.

I stood there sweating profusely from the last game, and we’d been skins. I held my PBSHS practice jersey wadded up in my hand, and I stood there in a pair of short practice shorts, short indeed as we wore them ‘back in the day,’ and in a pair of low-cut black Converse with my socks, a la Pistol Pete Maravich, flopped drooping around my ankles. That’s all I wore, that and a deep Florida summer construction tan, glistening with sweat in the humid 10-o’clock-at-night heat.

I can still feel her eyes “checking me out” as she looked me over, and smiled. I smiled back. I’d not given her much in return for all she’d done to help me survive Trig & Analyt. I let her look. And I looked back. She did look very nice, I recall, all things considered.

So, I invited her over to a nearby neighborhood 7-11 for an Icee®. She readily agreed, and she drove her new white shiny Mustang convertible while I rode along side with its top down, on my old beat-up bike, still with its banana seat and high handlebars, Easy Rider style. I wouldn’t have my own very first car for a couple years.

We sat on the cool concrete stoop outside the 7-11 til long after the 11 should have dropped one of its 1’s, and I bought the 1st 2 rounds of Icee®s while she insisted on buying the 3rd.

As we lounged around there so very deep in blather and chit-chat – not really covering any serious ground – just goofing around actually – me, sort of playing the fool, while she laughed and snickered at my foolishness, I carried on with her so easily: almost too easily. As if effortlessing glibness exuded from my very pores.

I noticed: with Julie I didn’t feel stiff at all, like I did with Cathy Dix.

With Cathy Dix I’d yet to have a date, and would only have 1 with her; with Cathy, I sometimes – usually – felt so inauthentic: not me, at all, for some reason.

But with Julie I felt I could be me; I was at ease, yes, effortlessly so, as if I’d just graduated, not from PBSHS, but from the Roy Merritt School of Cool & Charm: summa cum laude.

Why with Julie; but not with Cathy.

So Julie and I talked about everything, and nothing that night.

I tried to stay away from talking about me, especially the 2 girls I had dated most of my senior year – Patrice Williams from PBSHS and Barbara Andrews from a Nazarene Church down in Lauderdale I sometimes visited for the Sunday Evening Evangelistic Service with my friend Roy Merritt: off and on I’d sort of dated them; together, sometimes over-lapping; even competitively; and I especially tried not to belabor the upcoming year playing college basketball.

But I let her, encouraged her, wanted her to tell me so much more about her.

As she talked about herself, I listened, and I thought, couldn’t help it, noticed how her bottom seemed to have expanded, truly. But then so had her breasts, or so it sure appeared in that white just fashionably tight PBSHS varsity tennis shirt.

I remember 1 day in class, the season was just over, I was between the 2 girlfriends – Patrice & Barbara – kind of in no-man’s dating land, trying to decide which to ditch, or both maybe. And casting a glance that day at Julie, assiduously at work problem re-solving: probably refining Einstein’s theory of Relativity or re-inventing the right way of applying Quantum Physics, and so: unobserved, I took her in. All of her. That is, everything above desk level. Starting with her breasts to the very top wisp of her hair. And my breath caught in my throat, my heart beat at a different rate, and I thought: wow, goddess-like, no angelic, no, so heavenly like – and there she sat. Oblivious to me. And I was transfixed.

I was starting to feel that way again during my 2nd Icee® – maybe it was just brain freeze. Anyway, sitting there on the cool concrete stoop, and looking at her then, leaning back on her elbows and letting her PBSHS shirt snuggle around her breasts, while her ample hips and thighs though were just out of my usually exemplary on-court periphery, still I wondered, pondered actually, whether I should make a move on her.

Not there. But somewhere else. Somewhere she’d drive us in her ultra-uber official Coolest of Cool Kids’ Club car, certifying her membership in Very Good Standing.

Instead I lobbed the conversational ball back into her court.

She relayed to me her ankle injury at the State Tournament, during the Finals up in Gainesville, at U of F. Of the surgery 1 week later, her 3rd in the last 4 years, and the slow, painful rehab process she was still struggling with. And the gradual weight gain from the inactivity; swimming in her backyard pool just didn’t get it for her. And the mental and emotional struggle with not having played 1 decent stroke of tennis after almost 3 months when she was used to years of hitting 1500 balls a day. To none a day. Zero. 0. Zip.

She talked too of whether she even wanted to come back at all and ever play again competitively. “Recovery is such a long, long road back,” I remember her lamenting. She wasn’t sure it was worth it. Again. 1 more time. And then what? A 4th injury, more surgery, and again all the rehab?

Her father had reminded her that she didn’t need a tennis scholarship for college. Her mother had encouraged her to just go for a math scholarship, like her sister had. And her father stated too that money was not an object; she could go wherever she wanted: he just wanted her to be happy.

All good reasons I thought then why I was smart not to do any help sessions at her house and why it’d be a good idea for me not to show up at her house on some Friday or Saturday night as if I the poor, poverty-stricken, group 2-er would presume to date their Wonder Daughter.

So I think I remember I quit looking at her when she said all that, and I looked instead at the shiny white new Mustang convertible just beyond the reach of my old beat-up bike.

And I quit thinking of whether I should kiss her, or suggest we go somewhere together, if it wasn’t too late: there wasn’t school tomorrow or anything. We could go down to the intracoastal and park, or at the beach; we could go to Merritt’s Boatworks where I took girls in those days to make out, sometimes on the boats, tied up at the docks, since the owner’s son, Roy, and I were good friends, had gone to church and Sunday School together for years. And had been bona fide church tramps on occasional Sunday evenings during my mostly forgettable senior year.

But I didn’t ask her. To go make out. I got distracted, I guess.

Hearing what she said about all that from her father, and the talk of money, and seeing her new car and all that it and all that she talked about – and all it represented – there in her body, next to mine, made me think.

I realized, not for the 1st time, but at that time for sure that all of the students in high school are not only in 1 of 2 groups: the math whizzes and the math zeroes. Oh, there was a group 1 and a group 2 to be sure for that category.

But there was another pair of groups: those with a dad, and those without a dad. And I was in group 2 there as well.

And there was even another still more obvious pairing: those with money, and those without it. And once again I was everso most definitely in that group 2 for certain.

But being in that group 2 was much more insidious; whereas being a math 0 or fatherless was not very painfully obvious, but being poor and “without” was like a uniform those in that group 2 wore everyday to school.

And so I never really made out with Julie. I could have, I think. I should have, I know now. I don’t think she really cared all that much about any of that group 2 stuff. Why should she have, really; she was always in group 1. She was always in all the group 1’s.

But I cared about it.

And what I really longed for after a lifetime of group 2-ness was some group 1-ness.

My senior year had given me the very briefest incursion into a group 1 existence, as a sometime stellar athlete. Even if it was from the outside in, mostly.

Nevertheless: I liked it.

A Lot.

And I wanted to get back into it. And stay in it. Even if only for only a short while. And so I accepted the basketball scholarship that would take me the farthest away from all of my group 2 pairings.

I wanted a chance to be in group 1 once more, for more than the “time being,” and to not find myself locked, trapped into more group 2’s.

Or, just not be in any group at all.

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