The main character, Troy Madsen, who we are to believe possessed excellent baseball skills when he was young, had been denied entrance into the major leagues because he was black. He carries this bitterness with him all his adult life and uses it as a reason to deny his own son a chance to play football.
When explaining to his wife why he cheated on her he says, "Honey I stood on first base for twenty years! I just had to steal second." As a way to keep death away and to show to himself and to his friend Bono that he isn't afraid he says, "Death ain't nothin' but a fastball on the outside corner."
As we read and interpret the play students will be asked to explain what Wilson means with these metaphors and to perhaps write some of their own. As the play is titled Fences and is a metaphor for the fence Troy is literally building around his house to keep death, racism, and other assorted evils away it seems a perfect opportunity to read Robert Frost's "Mending Wall". Although I do not intend to do a biographical unit on Frost as that is the only poem I want to do in this unit by him, we will spend sometime on that poem discussing its implications in the play ("Before I built a fence I would ask what it is I am walling in and walling out") and in the world as the cold war raged on.
Other sports poems we will use include "To James" by Frank Horne, which is a beautiful and accessible poem for kids. Horne says to a young boy running track that he should "live as I have taught you to run, Boy - it's a short dash." The poem uses track as a metaphor for running a good race (life) and to enjoy it and relish his youth and his body because even though kids feel immortal life is shorter than expected. He further states that the runner should dig his starting holes deep and firm, which my students might interpret as preparing for life rather than just letting it happen to them by happenstance. I want them to take control and make plans for after graduation - any kind of plans.
The next poem "The Ex Basketball player" by Updike, exemplifies what can and often does happen to an athlete who does not make plans but just continues to live on his glory days of playing high school basketball: "Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot…Berth's Garage is on the corner and there these days you'll find Flick Webb who helps Berth out."
I find this particular poem excruciating because I have seen so many of my students who come back after their glory days trying desperately to recapture that old feeling. When asked what they are up to they mumble something about how they went to college for a little while but it didn't work out and now they play ball with friends sometimes but mostly they are just trying to put a few dollars together and oh yeah they have a baby on the way.
Although the poem is depressing I think it is important to let kids know that they will grow up and that they should "dig their starting holes deep" and that their glory now unfortunately will fade one day. After this section students will be asked to choose a sport they like to watch or play and then using details and vivid language write a poem describing an athlete playing this sport.