Getting picked last in gym class is a death sentence to the social life of a boy. But really, I was hopeless in gym class even when we weren’t picking teams. Chin-ups and rope climbing were one and the same to me, as they achieved the same effect: failure and shame.
When forced to attempt chin-ups, my skinny legs dangled helplessly beneath me as I strained to elevate my chin above the bar. One would think being a frail, skinny child would have made this feat easier. It did not. As I hung from the bar like a sheet hung out to dry on a calm day, I saw all my classmates watching down below.
Climbing a rope was a similar ordeal, but rather than my legs dangling in the air, they would straddle the rope like a dog humping a flopping fish. I always ended up exactly where I started – at the bottom of the rope, but with newly chafed hands.
I would suffer a similar humiliation in middle school when I attended an adventure camp that required me to climb 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. Meanwhile, the rest of my classmates made it all the way up with seemingly little to no effort.
My fear of heights, combined with my lack of physical coordination was the driving force behind my decision to pass on an adventure ropes course suspended high above the treetops. I didn’t even deliberate on this one. Of course, my refusal to do it only lead to more humiliation from my peers than had I at least attempted it.
I fared no better at recess. 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 bullies 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, my last name in itself brought a whole other degree of ridicule. And it was all due to the popular childhood game, “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?”
My experience with this game often went something like this:
“What time is it, Mr. Fox?” …
…followed by taunts such as:
“Time to kick your butt!”
Which, by time I reached middle school, morphed into this:
“Time to kick your ass!”
However, none 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. There’s something inherently flawed about a game where the object is to throw something at somebody. Not to them, so they can catch it, but at them, so you can hit them as hard as possible. In some ways, dodgeball is a tamer version of boxing. Of course, no school would ever dare force students to box. Some might even 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. It’s the elementary school rendition of survival of the fittest.
The original Hunger Games.
The sinister origins dodgeball can be traced back over six hundred years. Originally played in Africa, there are early variations on record in Korea, China, and Germany. In the game’s earliest incarnation, the game wasn’t played with rubber balls. It was played with rocks. In that context, guess I should count my blessings.
In the early days, once an individual was struck, their opponents continued 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 1800s, an English missionary named Dr. James H. Carlisle witnessed the ruthless game, and introduced 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, smacking somebody with a ball simply wasn’t enough. 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.
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 competition, opening the floodgates for school-sanctioned, team sport bullying. Instead of having to throw objects at victims when authority figures weren’t looking (or, in some cases, were looking) bullies were now actually encouraged to take aim.
Anybody who has ever played the modern version of dodgeball understands there are three types of participants usually left standing: the cowerers and the champions. The gap between the two – eventual loser and eventual winner – couldn’t be any wider. The champions manage 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. And then there are the “early birds”. 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. Looking back, I should have settled for the early bird option. But once a cowerer…always a cowerer.
Last – and certainly least – cowerers outlast almost everybody – not out of sheer athleticism, but for the sole reason that they spend the entire game glued to the back wall, cowering in fear, and using everyone else as human shields. As the others are eliminated one-by-one, cowerers suddenly emerge as easy targets because there is nowhere else to hide. It is only a matter of time before cowerers make their maker. Unlike the participants who got knocked out unnoticed early amidst the chaos of the game, the eyes of the entire class get to now witness your demise – as you – the noble cowerer – run 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 any opportunity to play – even going so far as to beg the gym teacher to squeeze in a game at the end of class. For David, life was one huge, neverending dodgeball game. Presumably, my gym teacher was no different than David Murphy when he was a kid. The only difference between the two was a teaching certificate.
If there was one silver lining, it was that 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 the more athletically-inclined in the class, who could easily beat David in every other sport on the planet, except dodgeball.
David always left me for last. This allowed him to maximize the humiliation he so relished. Like a predatory cat with an injured mouse, David taunted and tortured me by intentionally missing me six or seven times to prolong my misery to the amusement of the entire class. I cowered in the fetal position, where I remained until the gym teacher finally, reluctantly, told him to finish. Then he’d plunk me and have a celebratory dance like a cocky receiver after a touchdown. As if he’d done something difficult.
David even organized playground versions of the game, independent from gym class. It was the only organizing he was capable of, but boy did he put his all into that. David always sought me out on the playground to join in. I went along with it as I was desparate to “belong” even if it means having balls hurled at my face.
Unlike gym class, where the game was mandated (simply opting out would have been viewed as insubordination), I could have opted out of the playground version, focusing instead on digging to China beneath the swingset. But I was driven by fear, with no choice but to take my lumps.
Fortunately, after generations of traumatized youth, dodgeball has been banned by many schools across the nation. Where it isn’t banned yet, rubber balls have been replaced with softer sponge balls – the kind that doesn’t leave welts. The type of ball made all the difference in the world. I was not so lucky.
Twenty years later, an unexpected opportunity for redemption arrived in the form of a dodgeball tournament aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise. I was naturally hesitant at first. An entire childhood plagued with dodgeball and now I was expected to volunteer for it? For fun?
But what did I have left to lose. Even if I totally sucked, I could prove I was no longer afraid. And maybe … just maybe … I had a shot at success. Maybe … just maybe … I could purge my childhood demons once and for all.
Perhaps it had to do with the abundance of fruity cocktails consumed. Or perhaps the strong Caribbean breeze aboard our vessel, making it difficult for the lightweight ball to soar more than five feet, which somehow made everything seem less intimidating.
Suddenly, my first taste of athletic confidence took over my body.
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.
When my team finally took the court, I took several shots, all of which hit their intended target. Eclipsing my confidence was a simmer of frustration. I wanted to do better. But as the game progressed, 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’d suddenly become aggressive.
Driven, like an animal.
No longer a cowerer, I charged toward every ball, rather than dodging them.
I was silently disqualified in the middle of the pack – not by a bean, but by an opponet’s catch. It was a worthy throw, caught by an even more worthy opponent – a college-aged frat boy. 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. This was no Rocky moment, but I didn’t need one. All I needed to know was this: I could stand tall. I could throw the ball. I didn’t have to be afraid.
I was no longer a cowerer.