The Zen of Junior High Dodgeball

Here in Seattle, it’s known as Soak ‘Em* and back in 1979, when I was in the seventh grade, it was more brutal than any other game our emotionally damaged gym teacher could select from his vast trunk of torturous and humiliating activities. Hands down, Soak ‘Em was more painful than touch football, more dangerous than archery, more tiring than soccer, and mortifying beyond even the most ridiculous of square dance movements.  Early on, that simple game was probably the single most constant reminder that starting school a year early only benefited me intellectually; from a physical and emotional standpoint, I was completely out of my league – pretty much a Dodgeball practice dummy with a high-school reading level.

Soak ‘Em was never offered up merely as a suggestion; subjecting my head, neck and groin to forty minutes of constant bombardment was absolutely required, because middle school P.E. instructors are all vampiric imps that feed of the negative energies emitted by tormented schoolchildren.

But just as a Buddhist monk is thankful to his poverty for reminding him of the true purpose of life, so must I be grateful for having had the opportunity to learn of life’s cruelly neutral nature at such a young age through strictly imposed violent sports. Indeed, the hardships brought about on the Dodgeball court are, to a diminutive twelve-year-old, every bit as significant as the trials of monastic Buddhist life, if nowhere near as admirably recognized.

Unlike so many other experiences that similarly offered no choice in the matter – circumcision and inoculations are some colorful examples – the subjugation of Soak ‘Em was something I refused to just resign myself to. There really wasn’t much I could take away from being stabbed in the arm with a hollow needle, but numerous were the life lessons I took away from that form of legalized child abuse known as junior high Dodgeball


Obviously, the game was all about endurance. Players had to withstand perpetual salvos of red, rubber artillery without the convenience of bunkers and foxholes, so we found ourselves doing a lot of running. A lot of running. My legs being shorter than everyone else’s, I did the most running.

Now, there were a small handful of rules, one of which outlawed throwing “sidearm” and another that limited shots to below the shoulders; no head shots, in other words. The latter rule was not very well thought-out, however, or it might have been amended to include no shots below the knees because the lumpy mouth-breathers, already pissed off about the “no sidearm” rule, intentionally turned their aim to the opponent’s feet.

Here’s the math: Running Full Speed + Dodgeball to the Feet = Wicked Painful Gym-Floor Face-Plant.

I’m here to tell you – few things build one’s endurance like ducking and weaving until completely winded before being violently slammed to the ground. After a while, I started to realize that the hardwood hurt less and less; the rubber slowly but surely lost its sting.


For the longest time, I had been content to hang in the back, dodging and ducking; it passed the time and kept the injuries to a minimum. But my strategy changed dramatically with the realization that I could withstand a solid blow to the torso from both ball and gym floor alike. It occurred to me that if I were skilled enough with my hands, I could use this new found invulnerability to completely turn the game around. All I had to do was master catching the ball. If I could train my fingers to be sticky, I could own this fucking game.

Just like that, in a single epiphany, my confidence shot up through the roof. I moved forward from the back of the court, implicitly challenging the largest of the lummoxes to turn their bullying gaze upon me. At first, I was insignificant. In spite of my new found bravado – perhaps even because of the sheer absurdity of it – the sweaty troglodytes saw me as less than a threat and I was mostly ignored…

…until I finally made a catch and hurled the ball at the ankles of the largest goon present with accuracy that can only be described as providential. The kid went down like a tranqued silverback, and the resultant thud seemed to bewilder the opposing team long enough for my teammates to seal victory. I had personally eliminated two of them inside four seconds, and even though I ended up being knocked out of the game before it was over, I knew I’d reached a turning point and it felt great.


With the endurance to stay in the game and the confidence to get aggressive, I was finally in a prime position to go about giving the big guys a taste of their own medicine. Unencumbered by self doubt and fear of bruises, I found that the entire dynamic of the game changed completely. Their girth only made them easier to hit, while, conversely, my smaller stature had suddenly become a major asset. They weren’t as quick as I was, which meant that the balls near the center line were no longer solely their easy pickings. Dropping that first kid had shown me that pain is universal, so I knew all that was left was to match their throwing velocity. A cross-hatched welt on the lower back was the precise opposite of fun, regardless of the size of the recipient.

I began concentrating, really focusing, on winging that ball as hard as I possibly could. The temptation to slip into sidearm was great, but the desire to remain in the game was greater. I hadn’t the physical strength of my adversaries, but spurred on by their winces and angry barks, I found that with each throw, my technique got better and better. And better technique meant harder throws, my size notwithstanding. Before long, I was a force to be reckoned with.

Oh sure, my adversaries had plenty of chances to serve up revenge, but even as I fought to keep from having my face shoved into a urinal or my entire head wrapped in medical tape, I knew there’d come a day when we’d play Soak ‘Em again. That triumphant knowledge was all I needed to survive junior high school.

From there, it was just a matter of seeing life as one big Dodgeball game.

*The name has nothing to do with fluids of any kind and I use it interchangeably with ‘Dodgeball’ in this essay.

Last 5 posts by Kirk Starr

Last 5 posts by Kirk Starr