The picture to the right is one that I still find a bit shocking. That is my son Matthew, 14, and my, how he's grown! He's already taller than my wife, and it won't be too long before he'll look me directly in the eye. The point here isn't to talk about his recent growth spurt though, but to brag. If case you don't recognize the Polo outfit and the sign on the backstop, Matthew was a ball boy at this year's U.S. Open tennis championships in Flushing Meadows, New York, which bills itself as the world's biggest sporting event. This was the first year he was eligible to try out for one of the coveted spots, in which kids (and a few Walter Mitty-type adults) get to toss balls, dole out towels, and hold shading umbrellas for professional tennis players. In return, they get the best view in the house and $8 an hour (though not, as countless people asked me, free tickets—or any tickets for that matter—for family).
About 500 kids, most a few years older, auditioned in June for roughly 75 open spots. Those who displayed a strong arm, good catching skills, and athletic agility were invited for a callback and interview. About half of those made the final cut. Matthew was determined to be among them. A developing player and fully formed sports fanatic, he refused to listen when I told him the odds. It had been a long-time goal of his—spurred on by the fact I, too, had been a U.S. Open ballboy, albeit while in college—and he wasn't going to let anything get in his way. He planned his entire summer around being available for tryouts. He practiced his throwing and retrieving with me multiple times. I told him to express enthusiasm and confidence. And when he got the call (or e-mail, as it were), he bear-hugged me with such force I almost thought my neck would snap. It wasn't all fun and games, of course. We had to get Matthew working papers. He had to watch several training segments (including one on sexual harassment that, while pro forma for the USTA, didn't seem exactly age appropriate). He had to go through a pre-tournament training session, worked long hours, and didn't make it onto any of the three biggest show courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The "rookies" need to learn the ropes first; most don't have a shot at working a match for this year's winners, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, for another couple of years. But it didn't matter. Matthew had a blast. He got to share the court with Bob and Mike Bryan, the No. 1 doubles team in the world. He learned how to watch players, observe their tics, and find out exactly how they wanted to be served up the yellow balls (or a refreshing beverage at the changeover). Best of all, he learned, on a small scale, what it means to hold a job—to impress your bosses, arrive on time (if not early), be responsible (and responsive), get better at what you do every single day.
As he went through the process, I realized that we could have been better at establishing chores and allowance when he was younger. We never really decided about tying the two together, and it was only in middle school, when he started paying for lunches out and saving up for video games, that we finally established a system that worked. He still has a ways to go: I doubt he'd have the first clue about how to do a load of laundry (which is interesting, given that his two uniforms needed an awful lot of washing during those 2½ weeks). But he's also shown us that it's never too late (or too early, for that matter) to develop a work ethic. When he brought home his first paycheck last week, it was a thrill for him and a big milestone. It reminded us that while these may not come as often as they do during the first five years of a child's life, they hardly end just because your kid is a ninth-grader. I'm proud of you Matthew. Now, please clean your room.