For a male, getting picked last in gym class is a death sentence to one’s social status. Even the physical education activities that did not involve picking teams did little to help my cause, either. Chin-ups and rope climbing were one and the same to me, as they achieved the same effect: failure and shame.
In the case of chin-ups, my skinny legs would dangle helplessly beneath me as I strained to elevate my chin above the bar. One would think being a frail, skinny child would make this feat easier. It does not. As I hung from the bar like a sheet hung out to dry on a calm day, I was completely self-aware that all of my classmates were not only watching down below. But laughing.
Climbing a rope was a similar ordeal: rather than my legs dangling in the air, they would straddle the rope like a dog humping a flopping fish, ending up exactly where I started – at the bottom of the rope, but with newly chafed hands. I would have much preferred that the rope were a noose and my neck were in it. I would suffer a similar humiliation in middle school when I attended a camp that included an enormous, outdoor climbing wall. I got no further than 10 feet up, before losing my grip and crashing back into the wall as I hung from my harness as the rest of my classmates made it all the right up with seemingly little to no effort.
It was for this reason (among many others) that I passed on the adventure rope course suspended high above the treetops. Some people simply aren’t born to be harnessed.
I fared no better at recess, despite its unstructured nature of “free-play”. In fact, unlike most kids, I dreaded recess. I preferred the relatively safe, supervised confines of a classroom. More specifically, I dreaded the ample opportunity it brought for my tormentors to find fresh and exciting ways to torment me. While the cool kids played sports during recess, I dug holes in the dirt beneath the swing set, far away from the athletic field where my classmates played and increased their ever-growing popularity.
As though gym and recess wasn’t humiliating enough, I had to frequently endure the torment of “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?” Naturally, I sucked at this game like any other one. However, the trauma from this game was amplified by the fact it contained my namesake, which usually led to variations on this theme:
“What time is it, Mr. Fox?” …
…which naturally led to taunts such as:
“Time to kick your butt.”…
…which later morphed into “ass”.
I figured that once my elementary gym class days were over, I could put that game behind me forever. And for a while, it did go away. However, once I became a teacher, I had to hear it from random students who thought it was hilarious to scream out “What time is it, Mr. Fox?” I always play it ignorant and give them the actual time. That usually shuts them up.
And then came along that damn travesty of a song: “What Does the Fox Say?” Enough said.
However, all of these challenges measured up to my true elementary school nemesis: DODGEBALL – the bane of every elementary school dork, freak, and other form of social outcast (with maybe the exception of the angry, violent ones who already mastered the art of throwing things at unsuspecting victims). There’s something inherently flawed about a game where the object is to throw something at somebody – not for the intent of catching it – but to flat-out peg someone as hard as humanly possible. In some ways, dodgeball is a tamer version of boxing. Of course, no school would ever dare force students to box. Some might argue that football is more brutal than dodgeball. That might be true, but when football is played in gym class, tackling is prohibited. Furthermore, the primary aim of football is not tackling, but rather to bring the ball over the goal line. In dodgeball, violence is the goal – the elementary school rendition of survival of the fittest.
The sinister origins of the sport can be traced back over six hundred years ago. In fact, its earliest incarnation made today’s game seem like a picnic in the park. It was originally played in Africa, with early variations on record in Korea, China, and Germany. In the game’s earliest incarnation, in place of welt-producing rubber balls, the game was played with concussive – or, in many cases, deadly – rocks (in that case, who was I to complain? Guess I should have counted my blessings!) To add insult to injury, once struck, their opponents would continue to pelt them until they were finished off for good. It was up to the struck man’s teammates to defend their fallen comrade by pelting the attackers with rocks of their own. This ritual was believed to encourage tribal teamwork in preparation for skirmishes against other tribes. It also helped weed out the weak from the tribe. With the exception of rocks, not much has really changed.
In the late 1800’s, an English missionary by the name of Dr. James H. Carlisle witnessed the ruthless game with his own eyes, and decided to introduce a “tamer” version of the game back home. In place of rocks was a leather ball, which was still painful, only less lethal. In this more domesticated version, a player was only knocked out of the game if they were knocked to the ground. If they remained standing after a blow, they remained in the game. Smacking somebody with a ball simply wasn’t enough.
A few years later, the game made its way over to the U.S., with the first official rules drawn up in 1905. Soon, colleges across the country were playing one another in intense competition, opening the floodgates for school-sanctioned, team sport bullying. Instead of having to throw objects at victims when authority figures weren’t looking, bullies were now actually encouraged to take aim. Then again, a large amount of my bulling was done in front of the eyes of adults without anything being done, so there wasn’t really that much of a difference after all.
Anybody who has ever played the modern version of dodgeball understands there are two types of participants usually left standing at the very end: the cowerers and the champions. The gap between the two – eventual loser and eventual winner – couldn’t be any wider. The champions (aka the front line) are the ones who managed to knock off most of their opponents, while simultaneously avoiding getting hit themselves. The in-betweeners are the middle ground between the champions and the cowerers. At least they tried. There is even another subgroup that deserves a mention: the cowards. These are the participants who are smart enough to pretend to get hit amidst the chaos of the game’s opening shots, in an effort to avoid getting hit for real – sparing themselves the pain associated with actually getting nailed by a ball. If I were a smarter lad, I would have settled for this option, rather than being a cowerer.
Last – and certainly least – cowerers outlast almost everybody not out of any athletic skill, but for the sole reason that they spend the entire glued to the back wall, cowering in fear, and using everyone else as human shields. As the shields were eliminated one-by-one, cowerers suddenly become easy targest because there is nowhere else to hide. It is always only a matter of time before you meet your maker. Unlike the majority of the class who got knocked out unnoticed amidst the chaos of the game, the eyes of the entire class now get to witness your demise – your slow death (or more specifically, like a a chicken its head cut off), as you – the noble cowerer – runs back and forth against the wall in this most dangerous game, until you find yourself curled defensively into a ball on the floor, awaiting your inescapable fate.
For me, games of dodgeball more often than not came down to myself and my nemesis: David Murphy. David, of course, was a natural at this game, licking his chops at every opportunity to play – even going so far as to beg the gym teacher to fit in a game at the end of class most days. I am still convinced my gym teacher and David Murphy were cut from the same cloth. At least the jocks were more concerned about knocking out other jocks in a demonstration of their uber-competitive-jockiness, It wasn’t that David was especially athletic. He wasn’t. It came down to the fact that this game was a bully’s paradise, allowing him to pluck out the weak one-by-one, usually followed by even the more athletically-inclined in the class, who could easily beat David in every other sport on the planet, with the exception of dodgeball. It’s a wonder they never simply kicked David’s ass. Perhaps he was never worth their time. Or, deep down, they relished seeing bullies like David bully dorks like me. Maybe, like thugs who hire hitman, it gave them a clearer conscience than if they were to do the bullying directly themselves (of which there was no shortage of).
David always left me for last. This allowed him to maximize the humiliation he so relished. Like a predatory cat with a blind, disabled mouse, David would taunt and torture me, intentionally missing me six or seven times to prolong my misery to the amusement of the entire class, as I cowered in the fetal position, where I remained until he finally (usually reluctantly mandated by my gym teacher) plunked me, resulting in a celebratory dance like a cocky receiver after a touchdown.
David so loved dodgeball, that he even organized playground versions of the game, independent from gym class. It was the only organizing he was capable of, shunning all other sports, jocks, and anything resembling school spirit, in favor of anarchy. In many ways, dodgeball is the anarchist’s dream. David always begged me to play for the role reason that it would afford him a chance to cream my ass with a dodgeball yet again. Unlike gym class, where the game was mandated, I could opt out of the playground version, focusing instead on digging holes beneath the swingset. On the other hand, opting out from legally-sanctioned bullying would have been viewed as insubordination, resulting in a call home. My parents – specifically my mother – would certainly have supported my decision. Unfortunately, this would have only inspired more ridicule from my classmates. So I had no choice but to take my welts like a man and play.
A couple of years back, an opportunity for redemption arrived – a dodgeball tournament aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise. With memories of an entire childhood plagued with dodgeball still fresh in my mind, I was hesitant at first, before realizing that I had nothing left to lose. Even if I were to totally suck, at least I knew I would no longer be afraid. Maybe … just maybe … I had a shot at success. Maybe … just maybe … I could purge my childhood demons once and for all. I had even more reason to have no fear as soon as I saw the ball, which was softer and sponge-like, allowing impact to absorb into one’s flesh, unlike the elastic, rubber, welt-producing balls most of us grew up with. To me, the type of ball made all the difference in the world.
I got this!
It was my first taste of athletic confidence in my lifetime. Perhaps my lack of fear had to do with the abundance of fruity cocktails consumed. Or – more likely – it had to do with the strong Caribbean breeze aboard our vessel, making it difficult for the ball to soar more than five feet.
The tournament began. I sat on the sidelines with my team – comprised of all age groups, spanning all walks of life – eagerly awaiting my team’s chance to take the court. This was a change of pace. In the past, I would literally suffer from the Hershey squirts night before I knew I had to play dodgeball in gym class. Now, I was shitting my pants in giddy anticipation. My, had things changed.
When we finally took the court, I wasn’t afraid – just as I predicted. Not only that, but I was aggressive. I was driven. I was an animal. I charged toward every ball, rather than dart – or dodge – away from them. Although I fired off several shots, none of them hit their intended target. Eclipsing my confidence was a simmer of frustration. I wanted to do better. But as the game progress, my teammates went down one-by-one. By some divine miracle, not only was I still standing, but I was no longer using my teammates as body shields. I was no longer a cowerer.
In my new aggressive format, I may have been missing my target, but I was certainly not the first to get hit. Nor, was I the last man standing. I was silently disqualified in the middle of the pack – not by a bean, but by a catch. It was a worthy throw, caught by an even more worthy opponent – a college-aged jock-type. This was as close to redemption as I was going to get. And I could live with that. I could finally hang ‘em with fearless grace. And that was good enough for me.
My one and only Rocky moment!
Fortunately, after generations of traumatized youth, the modern day version of dodgeball has been banned by many schools across the nation. Where it isn’t banned yet, it is played with the much less harmful, softer sponge balls. Despite the game being mostly banned today, my elementary school memories are certainly not banned in my mind. No matter how hard I try. It is something I live with.
And in its own small way, a badge of honor.