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Jennifer Kagan '82 - Teaching Tennis at the Onondaga Nation School

Jennifer Kagan | November 10, 2021

November is National Native American Heritage Month. Below, Jennifer Kagan writes about her experience bringing tennis programming to the Onondaga Nation School in central New York.

Never would I have thought this possible, or even probable, that the people of the Onondaga Nation, part of the Iroquois Six Nations—or the more correct term, the Haudenosaunee—would invite me as a guest into their world, and that I would end up being called, “The Tennis Lady.” This moniker didn’t happen immediately. A few years ago it stuck, the result of a fourteen year relationship with this community.

I think that my tennis racquet is symbolic of the ways in which I try to bridge understanding among my culture and native culture. Its strings—which form parallel lines across and parallel lines up and down—mirror the threading of a two-row wampum or Gä•sweñta’. The original Gä•sweñta’ was an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch made in 1613. They agreed on three principles to make the treaty last: (1) friendship, (2) peace and (3) forever—meaning the agreement would last in perpetuity. The two-row wampum of the Haudenosaunee has one set of elegant parallel lines. One line symbolizes the native path and the other line is the white person’s path; through this image, the two peoples understand that they are not to interfere the beliefs or ways of the other but instead lead parallel, respectful, lives.


In 2007, I was taking a tennis lesson from Shelley George, the then-associate head coach of the women’s tennis team at Syracuse University. (We were probably working on forehands because that’s what I always try to focus on.) Shelley asked what I did professionally. I explained that I was a professor at Oswego State University, and that I also worked one day a week at the Onondaga Nation School, where I helped teachers with literacy initiatives. She said something like, “Luke thinks Native Americans are really cool.”

The Luke is Luke Jensen, the 1993 French Open men's doubles champion. At the time, he served as the head coach of the women's tennis team at Syracuse University. Shelley called him over and he came on to the court with what I would call “court presence”. It was exactly like having stage presence, but obviously his stage was the tennis court. Shelley and Luke spoke with me about starting a possible tennis program at the Onondaga Nation School. It must have sounded so stupid when I said, “Hmmmmm. This……a…good..idea,” which masked my absolute inner glee.

I went to the Onondaga Nation School the next day, where I explained to the principal that the Syracuse University tennis coaches would like to hold an assembly to kick start a tennis program for the boys and girls at the school. They would provide the equipment themselves. I was going out on a limb, but I had faith that Luke and Shelley could show what a worthwhile idea this was.

The Assembly

Every grade (pre-K through eighth) entered the gymasium at the school. They had absolutely no idea that they would be playing tennis. Luke and Shelley choreographed the session expertly, with girls playing against the boys in a "King and Queen of the Court" drill. Luke talked about Billie Jean King and her battle against Bobby Riggs, and then asked the kids to repeat Billie Jean’s last name to see if they were paying attention. They answered correctly; they were enthralled. Some of the kids were naturally good at tennis. Teachers were taking out their phones and recording the special event. It was a completely magical experience watching everything unfold.

Day-to-Day Operations

After the assembly, we created a program for the kids. I was mostly the only one on the tennis court working with the students. (And by court, I mean collapsible net with somewhat random lines of play.) Sometimes I could cajole the teachers to play against me and some of the kids. Usually, I had two groups on different days: The young group would play on Tuesdays and the older group would come on Thursdays. The younger group usually started with Simon Sez or Follow the Leader. (They would all take turns being the leader.) Then I would start the class by telling them, “When I say freeze, I want you to hug your racquet.” It was as if the racquet transformed itself into a teddy bear that they were hugging for dear life.

I intuitively knew that if I just let the kids play and feel successful at hitting the ball over the net, they would love it. Along the way, I discovered a surefire method to keep the younger students occupied: balloons. Balloons work so well for the younger kids because they get to pick their color and blow the balloon up. They’ll try to hit one balloon back and forth as a pair or in threes. If everything else fails with the little ones, balloons are always in my tennis bag, ready and waiting whenever I sense mutiny.

Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day

For many years, we have received tickets from the USTA to attend Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. For the last several years, Onondaga Nation kids, their parents, and myself ride a coach bus six hours away to a hotel in New Jersey the Friday morning before the event. Friday afternoon the bus takes everyone to Manhattan so we can see the city sights. We sleep in the hotel and then go early in the morning to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center so that we can participate in the event. The bus takes everyone home after the stadium show. It is a great end-of-summer trip and culmination of summer tennis at the Nation.

A Year Without Tennis

There has unfortunately been no tennis this year at the Onondaga Nation School because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m hoping that I will be able to send some racquets to the students’ homes so they can at least play against a wall with a foam ball. We would also like to send fun, instructional videos so that they can continue to improve their skills until we are hopefully able to meet again in person sometime in the future. I miss tennis at the Nation. I miss the kids, I miss having them hug their racquets. I am hoping that I will be able to return soon as “The Tennis Lady.” I hope we can again go to Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, an event that is so exciting and meaningful to those who get to attend. My racquet strings, emblematic of the treaty signed more than 400 years ago, also tie to my heartstrings. Nya’wehna. Thank you. Thank you to all those who have made it possible for me to do what I love.

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