(Names have been changed to protect the identity of those individuals.)
What started with a pair of safety scissors threatened to come crashing down because of a simple game of dodgeball. How did it get so out of hand? I’ll tell you.
The desire to conform. A need to belong. We’ve all experienced such confusing emotions, just as I’m certain we’ve all had a friend who’s challenged us to move beyond such petty grade school pressures.
For me, that person was Nash. A scrawny child with a wild mane of black hair and a hatred for cheese, he resembled a beardless Grigori Rasputin—although, I doubt historical documents reveal the crazed Russian’s stance on Gouda. Nash sat two desks away from me. On that fateful day when we first became friends, we were making hand turkeys for Thanksgiving, as one does in senior kindergarten. Wearing a Scooby-Doo T-shirt, he gobbled over and asked to share my scissors. Jinkies! How could I possibly say no?
From then on, we became inseparable like Bert and Ernie, except we didn’t live together, nor were we Muppets. I remember it being so much easier to be friends back when concepts of coolness didn’t exist. We could just be us. But inevitably, schoolyard pressure started. All the other boys played sports at recess; Nash and I read. All the other boys liked Hulk Hogan; Nash and I liked SpongeBob. This never bothered me, and yet, I had the most insatiable desire to fit in with them. Why? Even now I can’t quite say, but this need never tested my loyalty to Nash.
At least, not until the Day of Dodgeball.
He arrived at my house, zipping down the street on his second-hand scooter. Mum drove us to school. We spent first period in social studies. Despite being in sixth grade, the cartoon alphabet lining the walls was similar to the one from our days in kindergarten. We sat near the front, the A is for Alligator flashing me a wicked toothy grin. It’s almost as if he knew something I didn’t.
The bell rang. Time for second period: gym. I always hated Phys Ed, mostly because that desire to “be a man” was so great. I was never good at sports, so I had a lot to prove.
Standing at the head of the gym, Mr. Wilcox held two large rubber balls.
“Dodgeball!” he announced.
Relief. At least the other boys couldn’t “slip” and tackle me like they did in touch football.
Mr. Wilcox proceeded with his hourly one-hundred push-ups as the class divided itself in two. Somehow Nash and I ended up on opposite teams.
A quick tutorial for the uninitiated: dodgeball is a game of precision and agility. In other words, you lob the ball really hard at your opponents to eliminate them from the game. It’s the perfect sport for bullies—and our class had bullies to spare. Ironically, these were the same boys I was trying to impress.
The match progressed as expected: shoes squealing against the floor, shouts of indignation from my classmates, and Mr. Wilcox pumping out his push-ups (Gods, he was an Adonis. Picture Chris Hemsworth in Thor and you’ll understand).
I managed not to get hit. Nash was still in, too, a feat of even more improbable odds since the boys had teamed up against him, whipping those rubber balls at his head and “family jewels.”
But then I caught the ball. Nash stood directly in front of me and the game stopped. The overhead lights, sizzling with interest, were like spotlights shining down on us—two actors playing out a scene. Except it wasn’t a play; it was real life.
I looked down at the red weapon in my hands. The rubbery surface felt rough against my fingertips. I didn’t want to throw it, so I tried to justify it in my mind. It’s dodgeball! Hitting people is the whole point of the game. But who was I kidding? I had to accept it. Throwing the ball would be bullying…
Ryder whapped the ball in my hands, sending vibrations up my skinny arms. Still clutching the ball, I gazed around helplessly, conflict buzzing about my head. Oscar and Damien chanted my name, while Jay, a vicious girl with flaming hair, yelled the all-too-familiar “grow a pair.” Never in my short life had I experienced such a crossroads: throw the ball and earn their respect, or don’t throw the ball, endure brutal bullying in the locker-room, but keep my best friend.
I looked up and stiffened with heartache. I wasn’t expecting Nash to be staring right at me. But it wasn’t hurt pearling his eyes. Rather, it was understanding. He knew what the other boys were asking of me. And he knew that I had to do it. That’s how much he cared about me. He’d take the bullet—or dodgeball—so I could avoid the same embarrassment and ridicule.
He smiled. We’ll be okay.
I’d like to say I didn’t do it. But I did. In a mini-maelstrom of hellfire, I threw that ball across the half-line and struck my best friend. I meant to hit his arm, but my aim was so horrendous that I pegged him in the crotch. He went down like a sack of wet sand.
That was the first time I experienced guilt. Not like the time I lied to mum about feeding my broccoli to our dog Spartacus, but true guilt.
And he forgave me, because Nash was my best friend.
What started with a pair of safety scissors threatened to come crashing down over a simple game of dodgeball. But instead, all it took was that rubber ball to strengthen our bond, for me to stop caring about fitting in and to ignore those schoolyard pressures. If being one of the boys meant being a bully, I wanted nothing to do with it. All I needed—all I need—was Nash, that cheese-hating, Scooby-Doo-loving, Rasputin-looking boy.
Nathaniel Neil Whelan
Nathaniel has an M.A. from Carleton University and is currently enrolled in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. An up-and-coming author, he lives in Ottawa with his partner and pet cat Susie-Bear.