Maybe the game would be less dehumanizing if they went back to the big red balls.
Canadian researchers, according to the Washington Post, conducted a study and found that kids playing dodgeball in phy-ed use the game as a "tool of oppression to dehumanize others." Although the story didn’t specify, one can assume it’s the larger, stronger humans doing the oppressing and dehumanizing.
The thinking here is that it's not just dodgeball that potentially oppresses and dehumanizes certain kids, it's physical education class as a whole in our schools.
While I'm not in favor of oppressing or dehumanizing anyone – at least no one I can think of off the top of my head – there's a reason that the second I stumbled across the Post’s story I knew I'd be writing in this space today not just about dodgeball, but phy-ed class in general. Kids going to school and going to gym class every day or at least most days, year after year after year...that is some serious, heavy-duty stuff. The drama. The stress. The paralyzing fear of humiliation. The physical pain. The emotional pain. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. It's all there, in gym class.
I had small hands as a kid (I still do, but it’s not like it’s an emotional hang-up for me. Really, it’s not.), and when we played dodgeball in gym, we didn't have the small balls used in today’s phy-ed classes, we had the big red inflated balls that anyone from age 40 to 70 probably remembers vividly. With my microscopic carpals and metacarpals, I sort of had to cup the ball between my curled hand and wrist just so I could get off a throw that wouldn't be mocked by my peers, and maybe even the teacher. Looking back, the big balls and the small-handed kids who were unable to throw them at bullet-like velocity probably eliminated thousands of bloody noses, lost teeth, and shed tears. The small ball that kids are able to fire at deathly speed today? If I was a kid in phy-ed now, I think I'd forge a note from my mom and/or doctor claiming that physical activity of any kind risks immediate and unpredictable loss of my bowel function...and happily endure whatever teasing would result.
Back in the day, gym class existed to keep kids active and their minds and bodies working and developing in tandem. Today, it's still about that, but it's also about forcing kids to put down their phones for a few minutes every day in favor of actually pumping some air through their lungs.
But gym class has always been about teaching kids to deal with adversity, too. That might not be included in any course syllabi learning outcomes, but there's no denying the underlying point behind gym class. You will learn life lessons, triumph and struggle and build character, so much so that, decades later, the memories will still be like-it-happened-yesterday clear.
I remember diving and making a sweet catch for a touchdown during flag football, and being mobbed by my teammates. I recall being surprisingly talented at floor hockey, so much so that some of my ice hockey-playing teammates – who had teased me when I moved here from the Pacific Northwest with a soccer ball in hand and didn't know what hockey was – urging me to lace up some skates and join them at the rink.
But I was never picked first when the most physically talented kids were able to pick the dreaded "squads" for various games and activities that necessitated teams. At best, I was picked middle of the pack. I remember the looks on the kids' faces who were routinely picked last, and I also recall the looks on the faces of the squad leaders who were stuck with them. I remember, as we neared adolescence, being one of those kids who was petrified of showering after gym class. It was undeniably apparent which boys were growing up and developing faster than others, and the last thing on Earth you wanted to do was advertise to the world that you were lagging behind.
As part of the study, the Canadian researchers grouped kids and tasked them with coming up with their own gym class games. Predictably, no activities that opened the door for the big and strong to dominate the small and weak resulted.
While it’s one thing to make long-lasting memories in gym class, it’s quite another thing to be traumatized for life by it all. No one wants that, obviously.
But gym class served its purpose then, and even in today’s ultra-sensitive times, it has its place now. While it may fall short of oppression and dehumanization, it’s a timeless snapshot of young life, an unmistakable display of the adolescent human condition.