Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dodging the issue

When I was in 7th grade, our gym class played a game called "bombardment," or basically dodge ball.  As an elementary school student, I had loved dodge ball.  But in middle school two things were different.  First, the balls used were much harder (the ones in elementary school were softer, "nerf" variety, the ones in middle school were the inflatable hard rubber type....there's probably a better term here, but I don't know it).  Second, a certain proportion of the students were much, much taller and stronger because, well, puberty had happened.  They could throw those balls hard and it could hurt. 

I hated "bombardment."  And it hurt.  On at least one occasion (but admittedly probably only one), I was hit so hard in the chest that I had a hard time breathing afterward.  It wasn't a medical emergency and within seconds I was physically all right.  But I was really afraid.  Some of those balls came hurtling so fast, banging against some sort of metal heat register that created a booming sound when it was hit. 

In colder weather, when we couldn't have gym class outside, there was always a possibility that we would have to play bombardment.  Fridays, on inside days, were always reserved for bombardment while occasionally other days the gym teachers would "surprise" us with an unscheduled game.  I grew to the point where I hated Fridays and where I hated rainy days (which I otherwise loved....the dry Colorado weather sometimes can make rain a welcome thing).

Once, for some  holiday--I think it was before Christmas break, but it probably wasn't a Friday because it wasn't a scheduled "bombardment day"--one of the gym teachers talked about how in the spirit of the holidays, we had to give each other "gifts."  And the other teacher (we had two gym teachers), who was hidden in the ball room, started lobbing out the bombardment balls, and most of the other kids seemed to get really excited that they now got to play their favorite game.  I remember a sense of panic rising in me, almost to the point of wanting to cry.

At the end of the 7th grade year, we had to choose our electives for the 8th grade year.  Gym wasn't required for 8th grade like it was for 7th, so it was optional.  But we also had to have our parents sign off on our choice of electives.  And I thought that my mother--who constantly feared that I wasn't getting enough exercise or eating enough--would be angry if I didn't take gym.  So I put it on my schedule.  However, the electives were done through a ranking system.  We had to choose 8 electives and rank them based on preference.  I put gym at 7 or 8, hoping that would be enough for me to, err, dodge the gym obligation.

I worried much of the following summer about what my schedule would be.  The school would mail us our schedules in August.  When my schedule came, it had me down for a gym class.  I remember actually crying when I saw that.

This was one instance where I stood up for myself.  I actually walked to the middle school a week before classes started, and respectfully asked for the school to drop me from the gym class.  I didn't say why.  After enduring a lecture from the guidance counselor about how not everyone's preference could be satisfied, my schedule was changed. 


Now, I hear that one school district in New Hampshire has banned dodge ball [this is a yahoo news link, so it probably has a short life] on the grounds that it can be a way for some kids to target and bully others.  Cameron Smith, in the linked to article, calls this move "the latest episode of an over-active school board making an overtly PC move."

The linked-to article has an embedded video from "NBC sports," in which the two hosts bemoan the move, too.  One of them, trying to play devil's advocate, says, "if you had a small weak kid...." and his colleague interrupts him, "First of all, I wouldn't."  But to more seriously answer the question, his colleague says such moves like the banning of dodge ball make her "cringe when I think of what kind of kids we're raising and what kind of adults we're going to end up having walking around."

The other host then calls it "the wussification of America" and says "it's a lot like the kids that get trophies for everyone."  He then adds that as much as he wanted to play devil's advocate, "I think dodge ball like a lot of things breeds character."

I don't have much to say about whether dodge ball is a vector for bullying.  Although the claim makes a certain amount of sense, I for one was never explicitly targeted.  I wasn't singled out.  In my case at least, as much as I hated it and feared it, it wasn't an instance of bullying.

But I find the dismissive attitude represented by Cameron Smith and these two NBS Sports peoples to be reprehensible.  It's not about "wussification."  It's about subjecting people to low-level physical battery and not giving them a real chance to opt out.  I for one was not particularly confident that I could go to either of my gym teachers and explain that I wanted to sit out the game.  Over the door to the locker room, they had a sign that said "No Wimps Allowed."  Neither was I confident that I talk to my parents, for reasons that I won't go into here. 

Now, maybe it did build character.  For example, it taught me to, or reinforced my tendency to, want to placate people who are stronger than I am, or to hide in the shadows in order to avoid loud and strong people while they rant and express their rage through their physical strength.  Who knows?  If enough people have to live through bombardment, then maybe they can grow up to write the great American novel, or become secretary of defense and oversee the invasion of a small country.

And--I mean this next point seriously--maybe it wouldn't have hurt me to take a few licks, to learn that getting hit a few times by balls that in reality left no lasting damage wasn't the end of the world.

But the choice should have been mine.  And it should have been meaningful, too, not one of those "okay, you opt's your yellow pariah card you have to wear while the non-wimps play dodge ball" choices.

Again, I haven't much to say about the bullying aspect--although a link between dodge ball and bullying wouldn't surprise me--but I'm not going to criticize that school board for banning it.


Jon said...

That's a great post. I can completely relate. And I checked out the Yahoo/NBC sports link, and hated both of those presenters -- not sure which was worse the woman or the man.

But it also struck me how "American" those two are -- I know that may sound like a silly generalization. I'm American, and I think you are too. But the danger isn't the future 'wussification' (sometimes called the Frenchification) of America. The problem's more the current 'dickification' of America. (Am I allowed to write that in a comment?)

Jon said...

1 more thing --
It reminds me, Al Franken told of how George Bush once said of his swagger "In Texas, we call that walking". Al Franken said "In New York we call that being an asshole"

Pierre Corneille said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your comment. As for "d**ckification," that's fine with me, especially because it's true.

Yes, I'm American, so your assumption's a good one.

By the way, I enjoyed your blog posts about Spain. I didn't comment because I had nothing to say. But my fiancee and I plan to go there after we get married in July (not right after, but once we've saved some money). She used to live and study in Spain, and I've never been there (or to Europe, for that matter).

Dr X said...

Agree 100% with your take. I was one of the kids who could throw hard, but I despised the dodge ball games in 9th grade because it was battery. Utterly screwed up to have kids who could throw volley balls and basketballs (yes, basketballs) at high speed at kids half their size and strength. My way of dealing with it was to throw only at the kids who were throwing hard at other kids smaller than them, but the whole situation infuriated me.

There was was this guy Roger, big kid, who went after the smaller ones. I threw a basketball at him so hard at him that I separated my shoulder. The pain was unbelievable, but it was the end of me having to play dodge ball. Had to get multiple cortisone injections that have probably caused other immunological problems and the damn shoulder has given me trouble ever since.

Pierre Corneille said...

Dr. X,

My biggest, or at least my most immediate, objection to dodge ball is just what you describe in your first paragraph: the disjuncture between those who could throw very hard and those who couldn't.

That doesn't, of course, negate the possibility, which you witnessed and took your own stand to address, of people singling others out.

We didn't actually have basketballs. We had the inflatable rubber balls similar to the one the lady host holds in the linked-to article/video.