"Isn't it Ms. Waldman's responsibility not just to protect her kids from getting bullied, but also to keep them from becoming bullies themselves?" Readers respond to Ayelet Waldman's column about the pain and politics of gym class.

Published June 9, 2005 4:28PM (EDT)

[Read "Blast From the Past," by Ayelet Waldman.]

I think Ayelet should have stuck to her mission. I, too, suffered as a dodgeball target. I started school a year early and was perpetually behind my peers developmentally. I always dreaded getting hit. The dread was almost worse than the actual hit, but not quite -- that thick red ball really stung. Has Ayelet had her kids stand still and see what it feels like to get hit hard, like when the biggest guys are aiming for you? I complained to my parents and was excused, which turned out to be even more stigmatizing. I would sit on the sidelines and watch. The other kids ignored me. I still preferred it; it was better than cringing my way through 50 never-ending minutes.

Building empathy within your popular kids is just as valuable as protecting your vulnerable ones, in my opinion. Ayelet, your children may be having a fine time, but as you observe earlier, it's inevitably at the expense of one of their peers. So why have you concluded this is OK just because they're enjoying themselves? Even if you embarrass them once in a while, they'll be impressed by what you believe in, at least when they're old enough to reflect. Go back, Ayelet, and pick up the ball.

-- Colleen McGraw

Oh, for heaven's sake. No one gets out of middle school "alive"; that's part of childhood. But if the sight of your middle school makes you drive into a tree at age 40, then lady, it's not the dodgeball. I don't know if I would classify myself in retrospect as nerd, geek, loser, or lame-o, and at 40, I don't care. I sure as heck wasn't popular, but I loved dodgeball. It wasn't the great equalizer the gym teacher envisioned, but it taught me to keep my head up and my feet moving. Some days I was the wailer, some days the wailee, just like any other part of life. Your kids like it, and it's good exercise. Hope they have fun! Just as we sneer at aging jocks who try to relive their glory days through their children, middle-aged nerds who place strident calls to "protect" theirs are not doing what's best for their children. Try to keep focus, and please don't call the high school principal to shut down school dances when your kids are older, OK?

-- J.C. McCoy

Is Ayelet Waldman so lost in self-pity about her childhood that she doesn't see that her responsibility is not just to protect her kids from bullies, but also to protect her children from becoming bullies?

-- John Burger

I am also a member of the Shitty Middle School Years Club that writer Ayelet Waldman so aptly describes. Unlike her, I was male, short, fat, and a fan of Robert Heinlein and Dungeons and Dragons. But like her, I was a target when it came to lunch money shakedowns or general bullying and humiliation. Apparently we dealt with it differently. I don't know if it was my dad's influence -- he is a former Green Beret (served 1961-63 in Vietnam) who is 5-foot-5 and known as Pee Wee during his service years -- but I was encouraged to develop a quick wit, a rhino hide, a long fuse, and a devastating right hook. I loved dodgeball. It was one of the few sports that leveled the playing field in the middle school food chain and I'll never forget the day I sent the biggest asswipe in my daily crucible running to the nurse with tears in his eyes.

While dodgeball may not be considered the self-esteem boosting, morally fulfilling, team-oriented sport as, say, badminton (which was a constant P.E. activity at Dartmouth Middle School), it did give us prey a stage upon which to exact revenge on those who wronged us. I was angry as I read Waldman's article not because it brought back painful memories (I've exorcised most of those by now) but because she was so actively meddling in her kids' daily grind. Surely she would have, or should have, known that had she succeeded in forcing dodgeball out of the P.E. curriculum that her kids would have forever paid the price for their mother's misplaced self-righteousness. But she didn't. She pulled back from the brink. She's cool. I am the father of two kids, one 4-year-old boy and a girl only 4 months old. My son already has the wit and slow burn I'd worked so hard to cultivate as a kid, and when it comes time for him to enter the 6th-8th grade furnace, I'll have perfected his right hook and his dodgeball throwing arm, just in case he needs them.

-- Jeffrey DeRego

Ayelet Waldman stopped pursuing the issue of dogeball in her kids' school because her kids were enjoying it. But who better than her to understand what it does to other kids? It takes adults who object to the problem to solve it. It is true: Her kids need her to be the parent they need, not the parent she needed. But some other child in the school may need her to be the understanding adult that she needed as a child. As a child, I'm sure Ms. Waldman would have cried with joy at having some other adult stepping in to stop the abuse that her mother couldn't. We grow up not just to become our own child's protector but to be members of our child's village, which includes other children as well. Ms. Waldman seems to have the experience and the will to make things better for some other child. I think, with all respect, that she has not looked widely enough in choosing to step back. If nothing else, she might show her own children the moral consequences of taking pleasure in something that causes others so much pain. And the value of turning one's own experience to the benefit of others in need.

-- Ken Arnold

When she was 11, Ms. Waldman protected herself from dodgeball by covering her head with her hands. Apparently, she is resigned to face the game in the same way as an adult. Ms. Waldman must know that someone else's kid is currently experiencing all the misery over dodgeball that she herself so vividly recalls. I am sure that, had one of the jock's parents at her junior high school succeeded in banning the game, she would not have objected. Among the pantheon of institutionally ensconced childhood games, dodgeball clearly stands apart as an analogue for childhood teasing -- allowing pleasure to be taken in causing pain and humiliation; singling out the weak and physically punishing them. That her children enjoy the game doesn't excuse Ms. Waldman's acquiescence.

-- Aaron Singer

I'm glad for Ayelet Waldman that her children aren't going through the torment she experienced, but why in the world does she think that there aren't other children at that school suffering through dodgeball? She is absolutely right to say that NASPE (and most other teaching associations) don't see any place for dodgeball in a healthy P.E. curriculum. Waldman bemoans the fact that her mother never understood her problems but she shirks the opportunity to protect a child whose parents may well be oblivious to what's going on. I suppose she thinks she is protecting her children from being labeled as having the mother who banned dodgeball, but children can survive being embarrassed by parents (it happens to everyone) with much less damage than that inflicted on a few in elimination games.

-- Susan M.

If I understand the point of Ayelet Waldman's article on dodgeball, it seems to be that since her kids aren't the ones being harmed by dodgeball, the game is now acceptable. The author has now reached a stage of parenthood where the only children she shows the slightest concern for are her own. Ms. Waldman apparently believes that it's OK for awkward, unpopular, unconfident children to be attacked in dodgeball so long as her children are the ones doing the throwing and aren't the targets. One wonders what the parents of the children her kids are throwing over-inflated rubber balls at think of Ms. Waldman's flexible views. I may not be a parent, but I think that having bigger kids assault weaker ones is bad education regardless of which of those kids are yours.

-- Daniel Wolfe

I, too, grew up in one of those small towns in New Jersey. I was not popular or unpopular. I had friends, just not cool ones. I was a "wannabe" -- always wanting to be someone else, someone cooler, someone smarter, some more popular. My birthday is this Sunday and I will be one year closer to 50 than I care to admit. In my head, though, I am still 14. I am still in 8th grade, still playing softball and envying all the girls with naturally straight hair and clear skin. My daughter will soon be the same age as I am on the inside. I keep looking for signs, signs that she will become like me and that I will miraculously know all the answers. That by fixing her, I can fix my 14-year-old self. But mostly, she doesn't need fixing. She isn't broken. I am -- or at least I was.

-- Helen

Ayelet Waldman is proud of herself for learning to make a distinction between her own experience as a kid and her children's. That's good. But the fact remains that, even if her particular children are not being harmed by dodgeball, there still have to be kids at their school who are the ones getting hails of rubber balls thrown at them in gym class. Some other kids are having a miserable time in gym because they're known to be weak, unpopular and easy targets. Otherwise there's no game. As long as it's not her kids being victimized, as long as her kids are the ones having fun victimizing the weaker ones in this "cruel, brutal, violent game," that's OK? Interesting logic.

-- Andrea Crain

Ayelet Waldman's article on dodgeball really resonated with me. I was also the constant outsider who wished to be invisible. Better to be ignored than taunted. But it never happened. My invisibility cloak must have come from a budget shop -- it never failed to fail me. Dodgeball and other gym games were the bane of my existence, and when other kids were feigning illness to avoid big tests, I was doing it to avoid a nightmare session at gym. As such, I now fret over my school-age daughter and her social interactions and gym class experience. My fears, of course, are groundless. Both my preschooler and elementary schooler are very well adjusted and fit nicely into their social circles (and they are nice, compassionate and smart, too, which means they aren't at this point compromising their sense of ethics to fit in). The eldest loves gym class, and tells of an experience on the other side of the spectrum from mine. I applauded Ayelet for enduring her childhood traumas and for learning that her childhood and her children's experiences are separate and not equal.

-- L.K.

Ayelet Waldman claims "the only children who like dodgeball are the children who don't get hit, who don't get eliminated, who don't get wailed on." After reading about her experiences with sports, I'm not surprised she comes to this mistaken conclusion. It's not the sting of the ball that makes some kids' dodgeball experience so unpleasant. It's being repeatedly forced into contests they can't win. If you never have a sporting chance, you're not really playing a sport. Ms. Waldman didn't enjoy the game because she was always hopelessly outmatched. Who can blame her? It's true, no one likes getting wailed on. But if you can dish it out as well as you take it, you won't mind taking it sometimes. In a sense I agree with Ms. Waldman -- it's not right to force children into these death marches. I am appalled that some teachers don't have the sense to group children by skill level, so that everyone can get something out of the game. They are ruining sports for these children for the rest of their lives.

-- Jeff Weiss

Thanks to Ayelet Waldman for her most recent column. I must say that I had agreed with some of the most negative responses to the first couple of Waldman's Salon columns, but I feel that I can now have a fresh start with her. As a parent of a toddler, I haven't yet had many of Waldman's parenting experiences; but I find comfort in her honest approach to the quandaries of parenthood. In terms of amount and variety of content relevant to those of us who are parents, Salon has come a long way in the last couple years.

-- Derek Burrows Reise

Let me see if I've gotten this right: Ms. Waldman called her children's wonderful, liberal, new-agey school to complain that dodgeball is cruel and teaches children that it's OK to pick on those weaker than you, and dropped her complaint when she found out that her kids loved it? Well of course they do! The popular kids, the strong kids, the kids who win, always did love dodgeball. I respect Ms. Waldman's recognition of the fact that her children's lives are not hers and that they don't suffer the same unpopularity that she did. I applaud her ability to realize that she was trying to make herself feel better about her childhood by fighting for her kids. However, I can't stomach her final conclusion: that dodgeball is now OK, because her kids are the tormentors rather than the tormented. Perhaps she should talk to the parents of the kids her children are throwing the ball at, and see if they feel the same way. In the end, she is still using her children to vindicate her own childhood, taking pride in the fact that they are the ones throwing the ball at the weaker kids. Why she would want her children to grow up to be the people she still hates and fears decades after elementary school is a mystery to me.

-- J.B. Plante

By Salon Staff

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