by David Francis

Simply put, P.E. class isn't for everyone. I've known many people for whom junior high school P.E. is not a fond memory. In fact, I know quite a few are still bitter about their early P.E. experiences. And understandably so. When you are a spindly little egghead, chubby little geek, or a wheezing sickling, you learn to take you knocks early. You learn to survive the social anarchy which is the bus ride to school by keeping quiet and sitting as close to the supposed link to authority (the driver) as possible. At lunch-time, you learn to avoid the restrooms where the dangerously unpredictable rebels smoke, swear, and otherwise defy school policy. Ah...but P.E. class--not only can you not avoid it, you are expected to participate in it. And for those with childhoods like myself, this means displaying a total lack of athletic skill under the mocking eye of all your peers.

Now I've always held that any event which ends with you not showering alone can quickly become a life-altering experience. P.E. class is certainly no exception. And among the many aspects which make P.E. class such a potential scourge to the development of an individual, not least among these is dodgeball.

Now dodgeball had a special function in my junior high school days because before the day of the VCR, when a gym teacher hadn't bothered to prepare for class the night before, dodgeball was really his only option. Realizing now just how many therapy classes my gym teacher probably attended at night, I now understand why we played so much dodgeball. Nevertheless, this understanding probably doesn't go a long way in healing for some, the emotional scars produced by years and years of this special type of forced recreation.

Dodgeball is not a bad game, really, if it is played as a contest among equally skilled and consenting participants--but it can be very unpleasant if you are among the smallest or the sickliest of the players. For me, the game started right after one of the two team captains made an agonizing decision between me and a vastly overweight kid with asthma named Jeff. After this, the two teams went to opposite sides of the gym. Our instructor then placed five or six balls in the middle of the floor and when he blew the whistle, we were all to rush forward and grab the balls and begin firing them at each other, each team staying on their half of the gym. If you were hit by a ball, or if some one caught a ball you threw at them, you were out of the game. The game was over when one side had completely wiped out the other.

Now as you might imagine, those of us who were in one way or the other athletically inept, preferred cowering against the wall on the far end of the gym and hoping our more valiant teammates would win the game for us, compared to risking a pounding in the head with a ball. Our instructor, seeing that we were not fully receiving a dodgeball education, quickly modified the game so that either team could advance up to as much as 3/4 the way across the gym to fire at the opposing team. This meant there was really no safe place to hide anymore. This didn't really cause me or those like me to get anymore involved in the game, but it did get us taken out quicker and preserved the spirit of competition for the more aggressive students. It was in this way that I first developed an acquaintance with Matt Peters as we met each other on the sidelines between five to twenty seconds after the teacher blew the whistle.

Now even I thought that Matt was a strange kid. I am pretty sure that even in the 7th grade, he was still wetting his pants. I remember a time when he ended up breaking his arm on the playground because a bunch of kids had convinced him that they had once seen him do a back flip off the swing-set, and they wanted to see him do it again. I remember another time in shop class, him playfully throwing a wrench at my head, never even realizing how badly he could have hurt me. In short, the kid was just wonderfully twisted.

Twisted or not, Matt was smarter than most people realized.

The class usually managed to play four or five games of dodgeball in the gym class period, and the beginning of a third game, on one particular day, found Matt and I at the sidelines as usual scant seconds after the whistle had blown. We had both been taken out by Troy Williams, the resident P.E. tyrant. Troy excelled at everything in gym class (even square dancing) and dodgeball was definitely his forte. He was about twice the size of either Matt or myself and usually led his team to an overwhelming victory. You had to admire his skill, of course, but the fact that he was a pompous glory hound with a definite mean streak overshadowed his natural gifts. His idea of including the little people in the game, was exterminating those on the other side, and bullying those on his side. If you were on the same team as Troy and ever a ball rolled over to where you were quivering against the wall, he would stalk right through the formations and demand the ball. To be fair to Troy, this did make sense since if one of us weaklings threw the ball, someone on the other side simply caught it and turned it into extra ammunition against our team. Still, one could not help but feel some resentment at having one of your own teammates bluntly expressing his total lack of faith in you--even if it was totally justified.

I remember Matt was a little less talkative than usual as we waited on the sidelines for the end of this third game. He actually seemed to be paying attention to the game as though he cared about the outcome. As the game finished and we were all lining up to go at it again, Matt turned to me with a smile and said: "Watch what I do in this game."

Matt and I were next to each other as we waited for the whistle to blow. When the whistle blew, I stayed against the wall in strict adherence to wimp tradition, but Matt actually ran forward as though he was going to try and grab a ball and get into the game.

"That idiot's gonna get himself killed." was my first reaction. Everyone knows that its when you grab a ball from the middle that you are most likely to get hit. Yet, when I watched the two teams scramble forward to get what balls they could and then scramble back halfway to relative safety, I noticed that Matt had actually crossed the center line and had back-peddled with the other team as though he was one of them! This was completely legal if he didn't go more than 1/2 of the way onto their side, and since he was usually out of the game in less than a minute, nobody really knew or cared which side he was on, and since he had run back with the other team, everyone just assumed he was on that side.

From my cringing position on the far wall, I watched with delight as a ball was hurled from one of my teammates, bounced off the far wall, and rolled to a stop near Matt. Matt picked up the ball, and as usual, Troy came striding over from the front lines to demand the ball. Matt acted like he was going to hand the ball to Troy, and then at the last minute, he threw the ball against Troy's leg. Troy gaped at Matt in confusion, and Matt began to laugh his head off and capered over to our side of the gym again. Even the gym teacher, as fond as he was of Troy, had to laugh at the situation and told Troy to get out of the game. Matt and I were both soon out of the game ourselves, of course, but until the game was over, we kept looking over at Troy on the sidelines and waiving at him most impishly.

I confess I have no idea whether or not our team went on to win that game, or if Matt's little trick had helped bring about a victory. But I do know that P.E. class and dodgeball were much easier to bear from then on.