Why Dodge Ball Is Good For You

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Let's discuss the dodge ball problem for a moment.

A headline in TIME this week alerts us: SCOURGE OF THE PLAYGROUND. The subhead reads, "It's dodge ball, believe it of not. More schools are banning the childhood game, saying it's too violent." Tamala Edwards' article reports that "in a growing number of school districts in such states as Texas, Virginia, Maine, and Massachusetts, circles of kids dodging and throwing balls at one another have been banned from gym class...Opponents warn that dodge ball — also called murder ball and killer ball in some places — could be an incubator for later aggressive, even violent behavior."

You roll your eyes at the ceiling and hoot like Limbaugh: Ah, the terrors of life in a prosperous, powerful, peacetime society! In a nation rich enough to be morally incoherent and given to media vapors, language inclines to hysteria. Murder ball? Killer ball? Really? People with no experience to teach them otherwise are dumb enough, self-indulgent enough, to equate recess with the intifada.

You bray along these lines for a minute, going on about the cultural downside of American overprivilege (whining about dodge ball — dodge ball! — being of a piece somehow with Jerry Springer, Columbine, Jennifer and Puffy, Eminem and other manifestations of what might be called the opulence of democratized decline).

But then a four-eyed sense of fairness raises its hand in the back of the mind. Well, dodge ball can be nasty. It masquerades as such a harmless school game — that was supposed to be the point of it: violence without contusions, the mildest simulation, War for Girls! — that no one has thought to impose civilizing restraints, with the result that the hyenas in the class, hunting as a pack, feel free to cut loose and batter the other kids. We've all seen this. It dovetails with recent pop sociology about an adolescent culture of bullying.

But please, the first voice says, trying to be reasonable: The kids victimized by dodge ball must be distinguished from those poor children ducking bullets in the projects. Those growing up with daily drugs and gunfire get skewed enough. But the supposedly luckier kids, spared a demanding relationship with reality, are also liable to wind up morally undeveloped. It's the lack of reality that's their problem — their heads teeming with the violent illusions they pick up from movies and television, to the point that they cannot tell hallucinations from real blood, real death. They need rites of passage. Otherwise, they cannot distinguish between dodge ball and murder.

Growing up in Boston in the middle of the nineteenth century, even Henry Adams — author of "The Education Of Henry Adams" and an egregious priss, though a lovely writer — engaged in massive snowball games of war. Adams and his fellows from Boston Latin School were pitted against "the roughs and young blackguards," meaning all the nasty townies looking for social revenge. There were rocks in the snowballs, often. Adams "felt his courage much depressed by seeing one of his trustiest leaders, Henry Higginson — "Bully Hig," his school name — struck by a stone over the eye, and led off the field bleeding in a rather ghastly manner."

These battles might rage all day, into the winter dusk. Toward the end of one day's fight, "rumor said a swarm of blackguards from the slums, led by a ghastly terror called Conky Daniels, with a club and a hideous reputation, was going to put an end to the Beacon Street cowards forever. Henry wanted to run away with the others, but his brother was too big to run away, so they stood still and waited immolation."

Conky and the other blackguards let the steadfast Adams family be, and rushed on after the Brahmins who had fled. The lesson was: Stand your ground, and you might survive.

Adams reports that "ten or twelve years afterwards when these same boys were fighting and falling on the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland, he [that is, Adams] wondered whether their education on Boston Common had taught [them] how to die."

It seems to have taught young Henry something else. He sat out the Civil War in London, working as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James'. Sometimes survival is a morally ambiguous thing.