James Lileks
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“Is dodge ball legalized bullying?” asks a BBC headline.

The headline format provides its own answer. Are crows really reading your mind? Is the boiled-kombucha earwax removal fad safe? Are rhetorical questions decreasing? And so on.

If the headline asks a question, the answer is no, but the writer sorta kinda thinks it’s yes, and doesn’t want to say so.

The dodge ball issue is a bit more nuanced. First of all, it’s not exactly legalized bullying, inasmuch as no one drafted a law about the sport. What would that look like?

BILL 4932a, Bullying Decriminalization Act of 1975.

A. All games that include the throwing of inflated spheres at peers shall be legal;

B. The strong shall dominate the weak, the clumsy, the husky and the pallid, and no penalties shall be levied for marks, welts, swollen eyes or for any emotions that arise from getting a hot one right in the jewels;

C. Bullying with projectiles shall only be lawful in gymnasiums with shiny wood floors that give you a skin burn when you slide on them

But it is a sport that throws the lithe and the slow into a death match, and encourages the strong to belittle the meek and the uncoordinated. The very fact that it makes the losers feel like, well, losers is enough for some to call for its banning.

(Insert predictable boilerplate about the snowflake, everyone-gets-a-trophy generation here, with additional notes about how the young are unprepared for hardship and we need the return of the draft and possibly a land war in Asia to slap the phones out of their hands and teach them about the real world.)

That said, I have good memories of dodge ball.

For one thing, it meant we would not be doing actual gym stuff, like pushups and situps, or the dreaded gymnastics, which always seemed like a sadistic scheme to increase sales for the wheelchair industry.

Dodge ball meant you had a chance.

You could actually win gym class for once, instead of spending the hour in red-faced shame because you were basically a potato with glasses. The only drawback was the gym teacher’s insistence that everyone play shirtless, presumably so we could channel the ancient martial spirit of a Spartan athletic event. It wasn’t as humiliating as the shower, with its trickling cold water and granulated soap and grinning wolves snapping wet towels at you, but it was close.

The game I remember took place in junior high. The teacher dumped every ball on the floor. He blew the whistle, and society collapsed: Everyone lunged for a ball and threw it at someone else.

For all the chaos, there was a sense of honor; if one was struck, one withdrew from the field. There was no protesting a call. You took your hit and sat down, eager for the match to end and another to begin.

In this particular match, my side was mowed down like an optimistic English generation the first week of World War I, because the other side had a murder-armed kid I’ll call Ted Jerque. He was the star athlete of the class. He nailed one kid after another, and would catch the ball on the rebound and quickly dispatch another. To my horror I was the last man standing. Somehow I’d not been hit. But now I was going to get it, and get it good.

I will never forget Ted Jerque pacing the court, a feral smile on his face, the rock-hard ball palmed in his sinewy paw. He was enjoying this. Regular school may have been a bore to him, a series of stupid lessons about rivers in other countries and historic presidents (although the lessons about the ones who got shot were interesting). This was his territory: domination of the weak.

Darwinism, in a way, although I was concerned with the survival of the fattest. I tried to zig and zag, but it was like a carnival shooting game vs. a Marine sniper. He threw it as hard as he could, and on days when rain is coming I can still feel a twinge in my ribs where the ball hit.

I learned something very important from the experience. A lesson in life, a lesson in dealing with adversity. Namely, a cup of sugar in Ted Jerque’s gas tank three years later would make his car seize up completely.

Kidding. I did nothing of the sort. It’s not as if I figured, “perhaps my dreams of playing in the NBA are just that, mere dreams” or “I will show him! I will lose weight and become a scientist and make a million dollars inventing something useful, like a computer so small you can carry it around on your back, like a pet monkey.” No. The only lesson was pain, and it wasn’t exactly a revelation.

Fast-forward to my 30-year high school reunion. I had shed the pudgy shape long ago, and was looking forward to seeing Ted as a sad, pear-shaped washout. Alas, he was fit and well-adjusted. I asked him if he remembered that game, and of course he had no idea what I was talking about. Life had provided him with so many similar moments of triumph that nailing one schmo in seventh grade didn’t really stand out.

Another lesson about how your recollected tragedies really aren’t moments that the world revolves around.

So, in conclusion, two thoughts:

1. Dodge ball is harsh, but it’s not bullying. You might say it builds character.

2. Watching a guy try to start his car at the end of the 30th reunion and not knowing there’s sugar in his tank isn’t as rewarding as you might imagine, but it’ll do.