Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.
I went to my kid’s first fencing match with the same enthusiasm I brought to my children’s grade school track meets and ballet recitals—basically none. Barnaby and Marlena are the kind of kids who tried the patience of every gymnastics instructor and soccer coach who’s ever come into contact with them. They come by it naturally; in our family, if someone tosses you a pair of socks and you catch it, everyone yells “SPORTS!” Neither Barnaby nor I were expecting a win.
So let me just spoil this right away and say that Barnaby’s team won outright in the only imaginable fashion: The other team didn’t show up. There was apparently a problem with “permission slips” or “not knowing the day” or something, but I was absolutely ready to accept this win as a capital-W Win and take my kid for some well-earned post-match ice cream. Or whatever it is that dads are supposed to do at the end of victorious athletic contests—I’ll admit I never expected to have to figure it out. For this one day, I thought I had dodged whatever the equivalent of a bullet is in fencing.
But it wasn’t to be. Barnaby’s whole team was there, and since they had the equipment all set up, they did a practice competition where Barnaby’s team was divided into two groups. Now, obviously, I was rooting for the team that Barnaby was on, but that’s just because my kid was the only kid I knew. If I’d been smart, I’d have rooted for the team with all the tall, athletic, slender kids who seemed to know what they were doing.
Barnaby is right-handed but, purely to be absurd, fights left-handed but with right foot forward, leaving the entire body square to the opponent, maximizing the hittable surface. Barnaby, who uses the pronoun they, is also not nearly as interested in hitting the opponent’s chest as in swinging the foil in big looping circles, making lightsaber noises.
Which is to say, Barnaby’s a smartass. Also, the youngest kid there in terms of both maturity and, you know, age. Also, Barnaby’s just not great at fencing. Although I gotta say, just watching them warm up, the kid was certainly better at fencing than I would be.
That’s because I truly didn’t know what the hell was going on. The last time I sat through a fencing match was when I watched The Princess Bride in 1987. Fortunately for me, I was standing next to Fencing Dad, who explained the rules to the rest of us. Every match was fought to five. (“Five what?” I asked. “Points,” he said. “Five points.”) Each team has to fight five matches. There are parries and thrusts and counters and many other things that Fencing Dad knew about. He knew a lot about fencing, which made sense, given his name.
Once the match started, I saw that Barnaby kept looking over at me instead of parrying or countering or anything. The first two points went in quick succession to the other kid, and Barnaby was nervous, checking to see if I was watching, arguing calls. When the other kid got to three and then four and then five, we all just applauded and Fencing Dad, feeling sorry for me, said, “Damn, that’s … great footwork, seriously.” I was like, “Ha, yeah. Ha ha. There’s a lot of dancing out there.”
Barnaby’s second match, it went one, two, three, and Barnaby was way behind. I couldn’t begin to tell you what my kid was doing wrong, it all seemed like a flurry of swinging stabs and somehow the other kid kept scoring. I pulled out my phone and started recording, just to capture the crazy, and I heard myself whisper out loud, “Please let’s get one point, just one point …” All these late pickups, all the hours spent practicing, it can’t have all been for nothing. We needed to score at least one point.
And then we did!! Well, Barnaby did. It was explained to me afterward (thanks, Fencing Dad!) that Barnaby parried, counterattacked, and boop, right in the kid’s chest. One point!
I’m ashamed to admit that I was exhilarated. Why should this be so important? It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, right? Just that you play the game with … something. I was exhilarated anyway. To be fair, Barnaby still lost, 5–1, but we did not have to go home without a single one point scored. I figured that would be the conversation on the train. “You got one point today, next time you get two, and then you build up until you can win …” or something. I don’t know, presumably that’s the manner in which practice becomes perfect.
When Barnaby’s team was down 4–2, the coach pulled them all together and said, “OK, we need a miracle. We need to win out in order to win, all three of these matches. Barnaby is gonna go first. What do you think? Do you believe in yourselves?”
And Barnaby laughed and said, “No! We’re gonna lose! This doesn’t matter, we’re just gonna lose, they’re better than we are!”
Fencing Dad shot me a look, as if to say, “Your kid’s a bit of an ass, isn’t he?” and I gave him a smile back that I hope communicated “Why yes! Even a profound ass sometimes!”
So, Barnaby’s opponent was just huge. His thrust was this giant, front-legged lunge—the tip of his foil ended up about eight lateral feet from where he started. They lined up, and Barnaby was barely holding up the foil, spinning it in circles, like stage combat in theater camp.
The big kid made a huge lunge and Barnaby spun the foil, deflecting it. They were frozen, staring at each other, and Barnaby just booped him right in the center of his chest. Boop. The light went off, and Barnaby was winning, one to nothing.
And then? Barnaby just kept doing the same thing. The big kid would overplay his hand, Barnaby would spin their foil and boop him in the chest. Boop, boop, boop, boop. The big kid didn’t even score. Barnaby barely broke a sweat. Five-nothing Barnaby.
My kid turned around laughing and said, “We’re still gonna lose, I was just lucky.” Barnaby was, and they did. The next kid got his ass handed to him.
On the ride home, Barnaby told me that the other kids on the team were mocking them for not being able to do pushups. Also, apparently the team plays a game where they throw a ball to each other and instead of catching it, Barnaby just ducks. “I have no idea how to catch that ball, I can’t see it or think fast enough,” they explained. The kids were calling Barnaby a loser because of an inability to catch a ball … in fencing. I had no idea that catching a ball was part of fencing, but then again I’m not Fencing Dad.
I’m in awe of Barnaby’s unmistakable, inexplicable swagger on the fencing … court? Field? It’s in stark contrast to my own career as the most pitiable small forward in my middle school, and I wish I’d been able to be a smartass instead of a quivering shame-filled failure. I wish I’d had the guts to stand up to people who thought I sucked. I’m inspired by this weird little kid who smirks, jokes, and accidentally wins.
Because, dammit, Barnaby is staying on the team. Two-thirds of the kids have quit, but Barnaby stays after for a few hours every Monday for more practice. Quitting hasn’t even crossed their mind. Can’t do a single pushup, can’t catch a ball, but Barnaby booped that big kid five times in quick succession and left the rest of the kids to lose the game for themselves. It was a nightmare, then it was beautiful, then it was heartbreaking, then it was a success. I swear to God, I don’t know how we survive everything our kids put us through.