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Democratic table tennis club

I’ve been playing table tennis since I was a kid and I love the sport. Along the way I had a couple of big breaks in learning the game. One was when the New York State junior champion was a student at Goddard College when I was there. I got to play and practice with him. At first he killed me. I’d get only a few points. One day I finally beat him. The next day he withdrew from the college. I always wondered if it was a coincidence.

Another break was when I was running my school in Vermont. Lim Ming Chui, the former #1 player in Hong Kong, decided to move to Vermont because it was between Montreal, Boston, and New York, where he played in tournaments. He decided to have a big tournament to see who the best players were in Vermont with a $500 first prize. Hundreds of people came out of the woodwork paying a $10 entry fee. Of course, Lim won the tournament, but he used the money to start a league at his house, so a few others and I got to play there regularly. I consider him to be the best teacher in the country. Among other things, his son became a member of the North American team and his daughter became the NCAA champion. Because I learned with Lim it has subsequently helped me in teaching the sport. While I was in Vermont I taught three different students who became Vermont junior champions.

Teaching table tennis has always been intertwined with my educational philosophy. Because I knew the sport so well, and because it is perceived by students to be “non-academic,” I love to demonstrate to them that they can be such good learners in something that doesn’t set off their phobias and traumas, inflicted by traditional education.

I’ve taught table tennis at educational workshops all around the country and around the world (England, Russia, France, Ukraine, Canada, Japan, Israel, Denmark,).

Here, close to where I live on Long Island, New York, I discovered the Grenville Baker Boys and Girls Club. I liked the club because it had a good cross-section of children from different cultures. It is near Glen Cove, in Locust Valley and it just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

I started volunteering there about ten years ago. Most of the kids there only know me as “Jerry, the ping pong guy.” I never had any set hours through those years. I just came in when I found that I had an extra hour or two to volunteer. When I came in the boys and girls would come over and ask me to teach them. Through that time I was mostly working with teenagers. Some of them became fairly good but usually after a few years they drifted away from the club.  Occasionally I would hear from them years later. For example, earlier this year a young man stopped me in the parking lot of the Farmers Market where I like to shop for organic food, just down the road from the Club. He asked me if I remembered that I had not only taught him ping-pong, but had taught him the Morse code. He then went on to get his amateur radio license and is now is working in a complex field of physics and electronics at Stonybrook University.

Just yesterday, when I was shopping at the Farmer’s Market a young stock worker came over and said, “Aren’t you Jerry? Do you remember me?” I thought I did remember him, and when he told me his name that was confirmed. The last time I had seen him, a few years ago, he was a very disturbed boy who came from a very abusive family and was going to a special school.

He was often thrown out of the Boys and Girls Club, and may have been thrown out for good at some point. He told me he had been in and out of trouble since that time, and had eventually wound up at the youth detention center. He told me with some pride that he discovered to his shock that he was the best table tennis player at the detention center. It seems to have been a pivotal event for him. He subsequently found that he was the best at another school he attended.

He said he is now at an alternative school which he likes, is a senior, and hopes to graduate this year. He wanted to know which days I would be volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club so he could go in and show me how much he’s improved. This boy gave me (and everyone else) a very hard time when I had worked with him at the Club. Little did I expect that my teaching him table tennis could have helped turn his life around. I know it was affecting others, but I didn’t think anything got through to him.

I do remember one boy of twelve whose family had just emigrated from Venezuela. He had a lot of problems, a stutter, and very low self-confidence. Within a year after I began teaching him he became the best player at the Club. He then became good at other sports and a good student in school. The confidence he got at table tennis carried over to the rest of his life.

The last three years saw two youth directors come and go. I didn’t get much support or respect from them and I thought about not volunteering any more. But this year a dynamic young director, Jenny Wright, arrived from Colorado as the new youth director. At first she couldn’t understand why the children at this club played better table tennis than any other club she’d seen, and she wanted to find out why. When I first came in this spring and told her I taught table tennis, she started to introduce me to a boy who she thought was the best player. As soon as the boy saw me he said, “Why, that’s Jerry! He taught me to play!”

From that time on she has given me tremendous support. In a departure from previous years, there was a lot of interest from the younger students at the club, so I started working with them on a regular basis. They generally range from seven years old to 11, with many of them about ten.

Suddenly the whole thing just mushroomed and I needed to make a schedule, going in twice a week, to accommodate all the interest. Earlier in the year I had encouraged a staff member there to start a tennis ladder, but it had been trashed within a week. Every time I went in I was besieged by at least a dozen children, each wanting to be given an individual lesson. I would usually get through that many in about two hours.

I decided to take a different approach. We decided to establish a ping pong club which would be run democratically. The first one was scheduled on a Wednesday at 5 PM and we now meet every week at that time. The first meeting was quite chaotic. The children acted like they were in an out of control public school classroom. But we managed to go through the proposed rules of the ladder, deciding which ones we wanted, and we elected a supervisor of the ladder, a ten-year old with a seven-year-old assistant.

These were the first ladder rules:

  1. Only the elected Ladder Supervisor can change and update the ladder, and if not available, Club staff members. If they are not available, the Assistant Ladder Supervisor can change the ladder. If anyone changes the order who is not allowed to do so, they lose their place on the ladder.
  2. All challenge games are to 21.
  3. Someone not on the list may challenge anyone on the list. If they win, they move into that place and the loser goes just below. If they lose they go to the bottom.
  4. Anyone on the list must accept one challenge a day if they are at the Club. To stay on the ladder each person must accept at least one challenge a week.
  5. When you are on the list you may officially challenge only people up to three places higher on the list, however someone may accept a challenge from a player ranked lower if they wish.
  6. A player may request the Supervisor or volunteer to referee the game.

At subsequent meetings the students became more and more serious, with higher attendance, as they came to realize that they were, indeed, making the decisions for the group. They amended the ladder rules, gave the supervisor a vote of confidence, agreed to have a match against another Boys Club in New Jersey which had challenged us, and decided on the design of club tee shirts which Jenny said she would order for us. All questions are now seriously discussed, with enthusiastic votes. They even voted down my proposal that older students in the teen room upstairs be able to challenge on their ladder. They said they might reconsider it in the future, but for now suggested that the teens set up their own ladder, and furthermore, they challenged the teens to a match.

The challenge ladder grew like crazy and now has 47 students on it. The top half dozen are fairly equal and the places keep changing. They are all improving very rapidly. This is very much an “in the zone” situation, for those familiar with that concept.

Recently the director introduced me to a consultant who had been brought in to do a leadership training session with the staff. He came from Schenectady and supervises four clubs there. He was startled by the challenge ladder, not simply because of the number of children on it. What amazed him was that this bunch of fragile pieces of paper was being totally respected by the students. He said, “If this were at any of my clubs it would have to be under Plexiglas or something.” I explained to him that what was protecting that board was the democratic process. The students had voted on every aspect of what the challenge procedure was going to be and had even voted on what the consequence would be if someone moved the names around without the authorization of the manager who they had elected. One student had done that—ONCE. He was taken off the list and had to challenge from scratch. That was it.

I knew what the consultant was talking about, because that had happened here earlier in the year, absent the democratic process. But I hadn’t seen it in such stark terms until he mentioned the Plexiglas. You could almost see and feel the physical results of the democratic process with these kids. They probably hadn’t had anything else in their previous lives in which they had such control and respect.

Last weekend there was a nationally sanctioned table tennis tournament at the Spintech Club in Plainview, NY. At my suggestion, some of the parents brought their children to the tournament. A group from a club in Newark, New Jersey brought a group there also. One of my students, a ten year old boy whose family had emigrated from Peru, won the 12 and under event. But there are many others at the club with about equal ability. A ten-year-old Jewish boy came in third, but currently heads the ladder. One thing I love is how all of the kids are willing to help anyone out by teaching them what they know, even their younger siblings! I like to think that is partly because I teach in such a way that the students understand the concepts behind the instructions, and therefore can continue to teach themselves and others. In a few years I wouldn’t be surprised is some of these kids had national rankings. In any event, I think its giving them a lot of confidence in their lives. If nothing else, maybe some of them will catch up to me in the Farmers Market parking lot with some good life stories to tell.

Photo by Steinfeldt Photography Collection of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. Kids playing ping pong at the Jewish Educational Center Annex. St. Paul, Minnesota. 1940.

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