The Cast: Mike (a dodgeball bully), Myself (foolish/arrogant).
The ball wrapped around itself around his head like a spherical mask. It hurt just seeing it.
Most of you are probably aware of—or have participated in—the public organization of systematic adolescent persecution-toture typically known as Physical Education (or P.E.).
I am sure that most of you witnessed—or were the victim of—some type of bullying during that standard physical education session at school. My middle school was no exception. The bullies came from different groups, but during P.E., they combined into one new group of their own—rarely divided. One, in particular, was the type of kid that worked on a farm, so he was strong (and bigger than most of us). Turns out, throwing hay bails is great practice for throwing anything—including dodge balls. (especially dodge balls)
Mike enjoyed a special kind of anonymity. Wait, that’s not the word. He was, what’s the word? Persecution? Yes, persecution. Mike was free from persecution from the other 13-year-olds. He was safe from the repercussions of other would-be sportsmen because nobody wanted to feel the stinging dodgeball wrath of Mike. (he hit really hard)
I once witnessed Mike wrap a dodgeball around another kids head from 20 feet away. Seriously. 20 feet. So bad. I’ll come back to this.
Okay, for those that are unfamiliar with dodgeball and middle school P.E., it can be played anywhere. On a court. Near a wall. In/around a circle. In our school, we usually had our gymnasium divided in half (girls on one side, boys on the other—a curtain in between), and that’s where we’d play.
It was this half-court gymnasium was our battle-zone. Within the arbitrary boundaries that Coach would decide, we boys—divided into two teams—would begin the slaughter. The balls were always set upon the middle line of the half-court that divided the two sides (now two quarter sections of a basketball court). The two teams would then be set on opposite sides of the half-court, and when Coach said “GO!”, we went. Some of us smaller (weaker) kids would know we would get hurt and run for cover (any kid bigger than us). Some of us would desperately bolt for one of the balls in an attempt to tag-out the bigger/stronger boys first (to stave off pain and/or death just a little longer).
After those adrenaline-infused, panic-filled first few seconds, it was a terrible free-for-all. Those red, air-filled spheres of pain flew across that half-court at blinding speeds. The whizzing. The bouncing. Those sounds. You know the ones—we all know that sound. The sounds that only those red school-yard kick-balls make. Yeah, those sounds. There were also the occasional cries of pain from anyone hit too hard, and the gloating: “YOU’RE OUT [insert name here]!” Which, of course, was followed by the: “I’ll get you back!” This exchange was typical for everyone. Everyone except those hit by Mike.
If you were hit by Mike, you knew you were out. You knew you were out because the ball hit you so hard you would be knocked out. Or—if near a wall—you would bounce off the wall after being hit by the ball because Mike threw it so flippin’ hard! And then you would pass out. You were out.
If you got out, then you simply moved to the line on the side of the court. The edges farthest from the middle were the beginning of the line (where the new ‘outs’ went), the middle was where the two sides met and where you would reenter the game (where the newest ‘in’ went in). You could always tell the kids that had tagged Mike out because if Mike was still in the game, and they were about to reenter, suddenly they would become thirsty and give up their place in line to the next guy. Or they would have to go to the bathroom. Or, they would ‘just need a moment to catch their breath’ and let the next guy in line go in. How kind.
See, nobody wanted to get Mike out because if they did, he would target them, and only them. And, not only were they Mike’s personal dodge-ball-target-practice-dummy, he would hit you harder than he normally would. It’s as if Mike held onto a little extra somethin’ just for those poor walking targets. Er, kids. I meant kids.
The only way to tag Mike out without incurring his wrath was to hit him when he wasn’t looking. If you could do that, then you were free to move about and live. But if he saw you, or found out about it, your life was over (you didn’t snitch, it was part of the anti-Mike dodgeball code). Because Mike would just hit you just to hit you. Even if you were already out and in line (the ball would ‘slip’ out of his hands). And it was always worse than anything else he could dish out. Mike did not like to be shown up, in any way.
Alright, back to the head/ball/wrap-around thing. So, one kid had managed to get into a position to tag Mike out, and not be seen. Well, he got seen. Mike was so angry that he just cannoned that ball from his arm with such force that it was impressive to witness. Yes, why Mike did it was pathetic, immature, and stupid (remember 13-year-olds). But the force of that throw was still impressive.
See, after the tag-out, the kid laughed. That was his third mistake. His second was getting seen. His first, was throwing it at Mike. That’s why Mike almost never got out—nobody wanted to incur his wrath. As Mike sought out his petty revenges through school-sanctioned sportsmanship, only a few of us caught a glimpse of that particularly terrible—and still sort of funny—moment.
The boy just stood there, momentarily gloating. He had tagged Mike. The boy stood there, he didn’t run. He thought Mike would play nice and just walk off the court. That did not happen. Idiot.
As the red ball of soon-to-be-death shot its way toward that future funeral-center-of-attention, the kid realized (too late) what was in store for his treachery. The ball made contact with the kid’s face. It was moving with such force that the boy’s head did not have enough time to react with the change in energies of potential to kinetic that the dodgeball was trying to make. As such, the ball kept moving, around the kid’s head. So much, so hard, so fast, that for an instant it enveloped his whole head. From any angle, it would have appeared that that boy had a red kickball for a head. No lie.
Then science and physics took control and the ball snapped back into shape and ricocheted off in almost the exact same direction it came in (Mike caught his own throw). The kid whose face had just been temporarily eaten by the ball, remained upright for only a second as his body realized what had just happened to it. After that second, it staggered backward, the legs became jelly, and it collapsed on the court, nose leaking the fluids of life all over the face. It was bad.
Well, I also made that mistake. That same horrible mistake of wanting to be one of those elite that had eliminated Mike without receiving the repercussions of being seen doing it. Alas, I had almost the same fate as the other boy. I moved to just out of Mike’s sight. I threw the ball. But as the ball reached about half-way between Mike and myself, Mike turned and saw who threw it.
I was dead.
Coach blew his whistle. A reprieve?! Really?! Coach changed the rules and layout of the game grid. Nope. It was worse.
Sometimes the coach would shorten the edges of the team borders and create a ‘no-man’s land’ inbetween the two sides. In this zone, any player could roam freely. Under normal circumstances, if you crossed the line, you were out, period. The downside to a no’man’s land was that it was easier to get hit in the back by the other team because they could get behind you. The other down side to this one was, there was only about one foot of team safety on the far edges to rest in. Or, in other words, Mike could walk right up to me and hit me from point-blank.
Yep. I was dead.
Again, coach blew his whistle. And just as I suspected, Mike charged straight for me. I had no choice. I had to stand my ground. Yeah, I might get broken from what was about to come, but typically, bullies don’t bully if their quarry isn’t afraid.
Mike charged, a sinister snarl about his lips. Fire in his eyes. I was going to pay dearly for what I had done. I planted my feet. Clenched my fists. Puffed up my chest. Sure I was thirteen-years-old and only 95 pounds of… nothin’—to Mike’s 180 pounds of farm-boy muscle—but I was not going to let him rule me. It was one of those Captain America “I could do this all day” kind of moments. Yes, sir.
No, sir. That is not what happened. That is what I wanted to do. That is what I wish I had done. But no. Something primordial and self-preserving kicked in and I became a Fetal-Flamingo™.
Yeah, that’s right, a Fetal-Flamingo™ (it’s a thing, see the little ™, I’m totally making this a thing, it’s mine). Fetal-Flamingo™, you know, that stance someone makes where they curl up into the fetal position with their legs folded and tucked up to their chin, and their arms wrap around their face and head in an attempt to keep the soft under-belly safe, but at the same time, one leg remains straight and rigid, to keep the body off the ground. So, they sort of look like a flamingo in the fetal position. Fetal-Flamingo™.
I hit the Fetal-Flamingo™ pose and waited for the end to come. I figured with my eyes closed and my arms, already in a semi-fold, I should just pray and ask for a speedy death. About half-way through my asking for sin-forgiveness and letting my family know I loved them, I realized I was not yet in pain. This meant one of two things. One: Mike was waiting for me to notice this and unFetal-Flamingo™ myself to check just so that he could peg me directly in the face. Or, two: He had been tagged out. It had to be the first. Of course it was. It just had to be.
Tentatively, I unfurled the Fetal-Flamingo™ and looked about. No Mike. Just a few guys running about the court—and around me. I made it. I survived! PWAING! “That’s what you get for just standing there.” I had bee hit by someone else. Mike was over in the ‘out’ line trying to figure out who his newest victim would be. I would find out later—from the one that did it—that Mike had been tagged from behind waiting for me to look. I KNEW IT!!! He had been robbed of his perfect revenge.
The bell rang, we changed and went to class. The weekend came. It was forgotten about. Until Monday. But dodgeball season would soon end. Lives would be spared and some of us would move on, content that we had gone toe-to-toe with Mike (just some did it better than others).