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A Portrait of the Columnist as a Young Nerd

by James Lileks

A School Board has decided that children should not experience one of the most important and instructive moments of youth: getting hit in the head — hard — by a sphere hurled by some grinning cretin who has yet to graduate to other amusing pursuits, like tying firecrackers to a cat’s tail. Put another way: A school in Windham, N.H., has banned dodgeball.

The Windham superintendent was quoted by CBS News as saying that the game “creates conditions inconsistent with [the] message” that students should respect one another. Yes, their heads spin. One moment they’re told that everyone should be nice to each another, and then dodgeball turns them into brutish mercenaries because conditions have been created that foster an environment where respect is not respected. The kid comes home crying, the parent asks what’s wrong, and the child blurts it all out: “It’s the school’s messaging, Mom! It’s fraught with internal contradictions!”

This leads men to shake their heads at the soft modern world. Why, in my day — and it was night, incidentally; we didn’t get day until I was six — all the kids would get some blasting caps for a fun round of Lose-a-Toe or bust thermometers to gargle the mercury. Kids today! You think the Red Chinese are afraid of dodgeball?

Well, men say things like that, because they’re no longer getting hit in the head. Or were hit in the head too much. Perhaps there’s something to be said for dodgeball, and that something is “Ouch.” Nothing prepares you for life’s figurative blows to the head like literal ones.

First: Sides were chosen. The lean, confident favorites of the coach would select teammates, leading the butterballs and the mouth-breathers and the weaklings who smelled of milk to await the humiliation of being the last ones called.

Balls were distributed. Some were large and wobbly, and throwing them was like lofting a sack of trash filled with water balloons and frightened cats. Others had been inflated beyond design specifications until they were hard as something Romans would use to soften a fortified wall; get hit with one of these on the side of the head and both eyeballs would temporarily occupy the same socket.

On command, each side scrambled for the balls and began throwing them at the other. The nonathletic kids liked it because a) it wasn’t running, b) a lucky shot could take out someone with more ability, and c) it wasn’t running. The athletic kids liked it because they had license to throw things as hard as possible at other students while the coach looked on, nodding approval. Scores could be settled, too: Those rock-hard balls could remind the tubby little brainiac on the other side of the wisdom of sharing test answers when the teacher’s back was turned. A pal who’d made it known he had designs on your best gal could get a brushback that made him double over and think of the last time he’d jumped on the bike seat wrong. In short, it was human nature given its reins, a way to settle every grievance, blow off steam, howl like a savage, and channel all that testosterone that built up in the classroom and made you feel like a pop can after an hour in a paint shaker.

It usually came down to two kids. Happened to me in junior high. I was an uncoordinated dork with glasses and “husky”-sized gym shorts. On the other side of the room was a red-haired wolf who grinned and walked back and forth picking up balls, testing them for hardness, settling on a red Voit with a pebbled surface. I did not want to be hit. On the other hand, if I got hit, then everyone could play again before the bell, and I’d be a hero sort of, but on the other hand there was Pride at stake, personal OWWWW — didn’t even see it coming. Right in the head. Glasses went flying, the time-honored emasculation of the nerd. The coach blew the whistle and the war began anew. My “team” was mad because I’d held out as long as I had.

I gleaned a lesson from the public shaming: Better find something else you can do with your head, since getting it out of the way of moving objects isn’t your forte.

Should a parent want to bring back dodgeball, it won’t be hard. Start a private league and make it boys-only. Anything that smacks of a gender distinction will rile up some other parents, who’ll believe their daughter is deprived of an opportunity. A local TV station will do a story on her Struggle to enter the boys-club world of dodgeball, how she wants to break down the barriers that have kept young lasses from getting beaned on the brainpan throughout history. The government will get involved because the club meets in a building served by a public road, and uses air that has been purified by EPA standards, and hence receives federal benefits. So Title IX or XCML or whichever comes into play.

When she’s admitted, the newspaper will quote one of the young Neanderthals about his reluctance to hit a girl, and interview the coach about the difficulties of squaring the nature of dodgeball with the Message of Respect, but it’s all about equality, and frankly she’s got a helluva arm! Then the boys will have to go out and throw the ball as hard as they can at the girl, because it would be disrespectful to pull their punches.

Eventually the boys all drop out and it’s an all-girls league. Then dodgeball is the greatest thing ever.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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