My English teacher is my only advocate. She’s also the daughter of Mrs. G and Doc G, so she pleads with her parents that I’m smarter than my grades and my behavior indicate. She even arranges an IQ test and the results confirm her opinion.
Andre, she says, you need to apply yourself. Prove to Mrs. G that you’re not who she thinks you are.
I tell her that I am applying myself, that I’m doing as well as I can under the circumstances. But I’m tired all the time from playing tennis, and distracted by the pressure of tournaments and so-called challenges. Especially the challenges: once a month we play someone above us in the pecking order. I’d like any teacher to explain how you’re supposed to concentrate on conjugating verbs or solving for x when you’re steeling yourself for a five-set brawl with some punk from Orlando that afternoon.
I don’t tell her everything, because I can’t. I’d feel like a sissy talking about my fear of school, the countless times I sit in class drenched in sweat. I can’t tell her about my trouble concentrating, my horror of being called on, how this horror sometimes morphs into an air bubble in my lower intestine, which grows and grows until I need to run to the bathroom. Between classes I’m often locked in a toilet stall.
Then there’s the social anxiety, the doomed effort to fit in. At Bradenton Academy, fitting in takes money. Most of the kids are fashion plates, whereas I have three pairs of jeans, five T-shirts, two pairs of tennis shoes — and one cotton crewneck with gray and black squares. In class, rather than thinking about The Scarlet Letter, I’m thinking about how many days per week I can get away with wearing my sweater, worrying about what I’ll do when the weather gets warm.
The worse I do in school, the more I rebel. I drink, I smoke pot, I act like an ass. I’m dimly aware of the inverse ratio between my grades and my rebellion, but I don’t dwell on it. I prefer Nick’s theory. He says I don’t do well in school because I have a hard-on for the world. It might be the only thing he’s ever said about me that’s halfway accurate. (He typically describes me as a cocky showboater who seeks the limelight. Even my father knows me better than that.) My general demeanor does feel like a hard-on — violent, involuntary, unstoppable — and so I accept it as I accept the many changes in my body.
Finally, when my grades hit bottom, my rebellion reaches the breaking point. I walk into a hair salon in the Bradenton Mall and tell the stylist to give me a mohawk. Razor the sides, shave them to the scalp, and leave just one thick strip of spiked hair down the middle.
Are you sure, kid?
I want it high, and I want it spiky. Then dye it pink.
He works his shearer back and forth for eight minutes. Then he says, All done, and spins me around in the chair. I look in the mirror. The earring was good, this is better. I can’t wait to see the look on Mrs. G’s face.
Outside the mall, while I wait for the bus back to the Bollettieri Academy, no one recognizes me. Kids I play with, kids I bunk with, they look right past me. To the casual observer I’ve done something that seems like a desperate effort to stand out. But in fact I’ve rendered myself, my inner self, my true self, invisible. At least, that was the idea.
I fly home for Christmas, and as the plane approaches the Strip, as the casinos below the canting right wing twinkle like a row of Christmas trees, the flight attendant says we’re stuck in a holding pattern.
Since we know you’re all itching to hit the casinos, she says, we thought it might be fun to do a little gambling till we’re clear to land.
Let’s everybody take out a dollar and put it in this airsick bag. Then write your seat number on your ticket stub and throw it in this other airsick bag. We’ll pull out one ticket stub, and that person will win the jackpot!
She collects everyone’s dollar while another flight attendant collects the ticket stubs. Now she stands at the head of the plane and reaches in the bag.
And the grand prize goes to, drumroll please, 9F!
I’m 9F. I won! I won! I stand and wave. The passengers turn and see me. More groans. Great, the kid with the pink mohawk won.
The flight attendant reluctantly hands me the airsick bag full of ninety-six ones. I spend the, rest of the flight counting and recounting them, thanking my lucky stars for this horseshoe up my ass.
My father, as expected, is horrified by my hair and earring. But he refuses to blame himself or the Bollettieri Academy. He won’t admit that sending me away was a mistake, and he won’t stand for any talk of my coming home. He simply asks if I’m a faggot. — Andre Agassi, in his autobiography Open (read for free)