If you attended a New York City Catholic school in the '60s, you knew one thing if you knew nothing else. Teachers were scowling, hulking, black-enshrouded nuns whose enormous rosary beads bounced against their fleshy hips, where dangled crucifixes large enough to ferry cattle across the Hudson. They were not congenial, friendly blond men in their late 20s. It just didn't work that way.
You can then imagine the shock of my fourth grade class on that first day of school in 1969, when a tall, grinning young man named Mr. Sabitini strolled into our classroom and announced that he was not a substitute, but would actually be our teacher for the rest of the school year. Nine-year-old children wept the rapturous tears of prisoners of war freed from a stalag after years of torment. Getting a lay teacher was like winning the kids' lottery. Twice.
In 1969 Neil Armstrong toed the virgin surface of the moon and half a million peace mongers flocked to Woodstock. But at Our Lady of Pompeii Elementary School on Manhattan's lower West Side, we knew only that our class had a teacher who didn't wear a habit, didn't scream at us in Latin, and didn't condemn our souls to the Purgatorial abyss for forgetting to genuflect before getting into the church pew. Surely, we thought, God had exhausted his astounding supply of wonders for one year. Turns out, he was only warming up in the bullpen.
That fall, New York's "Miracle Mets"--a team whose players, a few short years before, were being carried off the diamond after being struck in the head by the fly balls they were trying to field--found themselves in the World Series. Throughout late September and early October, we abandoned our mandatory prayers for petty nonsense like salvation and world harmony. Instead, we aimed our petitions at a charitable, empathetic God who, if he could create the heavens and the earth in only seven days, certainly could lead our hapless Mets to victory in seven games.
But our beneficent god of baseball didn't need seven games. After losing the first, the underdog Mets took the next four straight from the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles, and our class joined the rest of the city in unrestrained jubilation. We had all learned a lesson about the power of the long shot. Later that year, Mr. Sabitini would teach me a more personal lesson about long shots and underdogs. For those were not only days of marvelous technological accomplishments, revolutionary social upheaval, and historic victories on the playing fields, they were also the dark, dire, dreaded days of dodgeball. I offer, for the uninitiated, an explanation of the death sport, although it's difficult to imagine there exists on Earth more than a handful of people who have never felt the blistering friction burn inflicted by a thick rubber ball striking their face with sufficient pressure and velocity to eject one's thyroid gland out one's ear.
Essentially, dodgeball is a war-of-attrition game, in which several players on each team face each other across a court. The object is to hurl the ball at your opponent with all your might, after which one of three things can happen: if it hits him in any way, he is out of the game; if he catches it, you are out of the game; or, if he dodges it successfully, he gets to pick it up and hurl it at you. This goes on until there is one player left standing to claim the win for his team, or the city runs out of ambulances.
As with most sports, dodgeball was hardly configured for the child of lesser stature: the harder you can throw the ball the more difficult it is for your opponent to catch or dodge it, leaving you the winner and the naturally selected representative to ensure the survival of the species. In fourth grade, I was a head shorter than any kid in my class. Compounding matters, I was several heads shorter than the Enzo brothers, the twins who were the largest kids in my class. At age nine, the Enzo brothers were already in need of a shave, were routinely pummeling eighth-graders, and delighted in their after-school hobby of shaking the Good Humor man's cart upside down until the last of the Nutty Buddies fell out.
Finding yourself on the team that opposed the Enzo brothers was about as pleasant as hearing your dentist tell his assistant, "No, I said hand me the BIG needle." When they played dodgeball, they were wholly unsatisfied if one of their throws did not lift its intended victim off the floor and at least four rows into the bleachers, the word "Voit" tattooed in purple welts across the victim's neck. As they stared at you from the other side of the court, it was clear from the look in their eyes that they would settle for nothing less than seeing your forehead pop open like a champagne bottle in a paint shaker.
Through an instinctive effort to avoid the inexorable cerebral hemorrhage headed my way, I had mastered the art of participatory nonparticipation, a crafty technique in which I would hide behind the fattest kid in class and wait until the ball was thrown at him. Then, I would let the ball deflect off him and hit me, so that I could get out of the game and still avoid the sting of a direct hit. Of course, I could have taken the easy way out and thrown a soft, loopy little toss to the other side, where it would be easily caught and I'd be free to leave the game, but such a gutless act would have been viewed by my streetwise classmates as cowardice. As a result, I later would have found myself in a Bleecker Street back alley, my head wedged firmly in one Enzo brother's armpit, while the other applied to my head a choice medley selected from their extensive menu of patented power noogies.
Therefore, I spent my dodgeball days diving for cover and pretending that having an ear sheared off the side of my head really didn't hurt that much. Bored with supervising our gym classes, Mr. Sabitini one day decided that he would challenge all the boys in our class to a game of dodgeball. This horrified even the Enzo brothers because, to our knowledge, no adult had ever played dodgeball against children. The girls immediately stopped their hopscotching and rope-jumping activities on the other side of the gym and ran over to watch, adding even more heat to a seething pre-adolescent peer pressure stew that was about to splatter humiliation and pulverized cranial tissue all over Greenwich Village.
As the ball started flying, I immediately dropped in behind the chunkiest kid I could find. One by one they fell. Mr. Sabitini was flawless. He was so fast that no one could hit him and, almost without effort, he caught every ball thrown at him. He threw hard enough so that we had no time to escape, yet never so hard that getting hit would hurt.
About 15 minutes into the game, the Enzo Brothers, our only hope for victory, lunged at the line and each launched his best shot, only to see them caught easily by our chuckling teacher. In the face of such dodgeball aptitude I realized that my participatory nonparticipation plan was a wretched tactic born of my absurd notion that I might actually reach high school without having my head popped open like a Pez dispenser. My final strategy was to let the ball hit me and get out of the game before I was one of the only targets left. I began hurling myself into the path of Mr. Sabitini's throws.
It didn't work.
There I stood, alone on my side of the floor, the last delegate of my dejected class, contemplating the complete malfunction of my entire excretory system, while a smirking Mr. Sabitini tossed the ball from hand to hand. I crumpled to the floor as he reared his arm back and let loose a red rubber laser beam that passed only inches over the part in my hair. As I lay there waiting for even the merest suggestion of a pulse, I heard the sounds of my classmates cheering and applauding. Not only had I dodged the ball, it had not bounced off the bleachers behind me and rolled back to Mr. Sabitini, which would have entitled him to another throw, thereby consummating my doom. Instead, the ball sat motionless only inches away from me. Now it was my turn.
Trying to exude the air of a confident athlete rather than the air of a nine-year-old on the verge of a grand mal seizure, I picked up the ball and did my best impersonation of Tom Seaver winding up to fire a blazing split-fingered fastball. Mr. Sabitini didn't flinch. He just crouched directly in front of me, waiting to catch my pathetic throw and condemn me to the shame of my classmates and the wrath of the Enzo brothers, who despite the commotion were arguing over whether to give me the noogie du jour or to advance to a cauterization noogie, or perhaps the terrifying coma noogie.
I closed my eyes and let it fly.
The ball struck Mr. Sabitini right in the hands; the worst possible throw I could make. Time stopped and I saw myself being carried out of Shea Stadium on a stretcher, the imprint of a routine pop-up stamped on my forehead. A half-second later, the ball bounced off the tips of Mr. Sabitini's outstretched fingers and hit the floor. He dropped it. He was out. I was in. We won.
Within seconds I was riding a raft of my classmates across the gym, triumphantly accepting their back slaps and shoulder chucks as they chanted my name. I spent the rest of the day beaming with newfound self-esteem, recanting the play-by-play to anyone who hadn't already heard it six times. I had won my own World Series against impossible, Mets-like odds.
I was well into adulthood before it occurred to me that Mr. Sabitini could have caught my throw blindfolded and hanging upside down in a wind tunnel. He had dropped the ball on purpose, and done it so convincingly that none of my classmates suspected a fix; so convincingly, in fact, that it took me more than 25 years to figure it out.
For a long time after that day, I was one of the first kids selected when sides were chosen for dodgeball. My diminutive size and bizarre throwing style now were cherished attributes instead of liabilities. My days of cowering behind the obese were over. I now charged the line, fired by my first taste of glory and a lesson taught by a kind teacher: sometimes, even the Mets win.
© 2011 Steven Ricci
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