Richie Frank failed the fourth grade. I had barely set foot through the school’s front entrance on my first day back from summer vacation when I heard the news. Still reeling from a tumultuous month of August due to my parents’s constant bickering, just seeing my friend Brad standing next to me felt strange, much less hearing the outlandish news he was babbling on about.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to my best friend since a sunny day in early June, well before my parents began fighting, when his mother dropped him off at our home to spend the afternoon playing catch in my back yard. The moment he saw me walk into school, he raced up to me wearing a grin comparable to The Joker’s frozen smirk while preparing for battle with Bat Man.
His hair hadn’t changed, still two shades darker than my sandy brown. Still two inches shorter than I was, and at least ten pounds lighter, Brad and I had been the best of buddies since learning to tie our shoes and cut a straight line with scissors in kindergarten. And while his appearance hadn’t changed much in two months, something still felt different.
I was keeping a secret, one that Brad didn’t know about. The secret of my parents fighting nearly everyday over something Mom had found in Dad’s truck. A secret I didn’t want Brad, or anyone else in my school to know about.
However, as I stood there looking into the eyes of my friend of five years, the knowledge of my dismal summer faded ever so slightly. At long last I started to feel like a regular nine year old kid, starting the fourth grade, and seeing my friends again after a long summer break. I even attempted a smile, my first one in weeks.
While my life at home had taken a very hard turn for the worse, the rest of the world had continued to roll on unscathed and unaware of my family’s disarray. I needed that very much. A steady prescription of normalcy.
Berlin Elementary School was not unlike any other grade school built throughout the many rural communities dotting the map here and there across our country’s mid-west.
Standing only two stories high and constructed of traditional red brick, the building boasted of gray tiled floors throughout, and walls of cinder block, painted over in a dozen coats of child-calming yellow as most schools were doing back then. And while it was always known for it’s tidy appearance and well maintained facilities, a simple glance into the building’s gymnasium whispered the secret of it’s true age.
While remaining lacquered to a glistening hue, the ball court was very small, with only enough room for two basketball goals, one protruding from each block wall on either side of the court.
A thirty foot long stage ran along the edge of the court where many school plays had been held years earlier, and probably for years to come. Rows of wooden bleachers, roughly ten sections high, faced the gym floor and stage where many families had crammed together over the years to watch whatever events their young ones were participating in at the time.
Regardless of it’s tidy stature though, the building was adequate for a town of only several thousand residents, many of whom were Amish and did not attend our public school system anyway.
Living only five minutes away from the elementary and it’s park, I was able to walk to school everyday. And while on most occasions this was an advantage to the madness and confusion of bussing, depending upon the weather, was at times a frustrating trek to climb each morning, and back down each afternoon.
"Richie Frank flunked?" I asked, suddenly realizing the magnitude of what Brad was telling me.
"He sure did!" Brad said, still smiling.
"But that means he’s in our class now," I said.
"Yep," Brad said, "He’s one of us. Know what that means?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, as we made our way up the stairs to our new home room. "Now we have to deal with him pushing us around every day."
"He can’t push all of us!" Brad said. "We’ll gang up on him if we have to!"
Together we entered Mrs. Swartzentruber’s 4th grade class room as the eight o’clock bell sounded.
And there he was. Sitting at his desk with his head down, shoulders slumped forward as if grimacing from a stinging bellyache, Richie Frank, our version of the class bully, silently awaited the beginning of a second year in the fourth grade. I learned later that it wasn’t so much his school work that was the cause of his being held back, but rather a very poor attendance from missing nearly three month’s worth of classes due to illness. All I cared about at that moment however, was that his desk was located directly behind mine.
"Don’t be scared!" Brad said with a laugh as he dashed to his assigned seat at the other end of the room.
Keeping my eyes focused on the suddenly dismal gray floor, I walked quietly to my seat and slid behind the desk without so much as glancing up in his general direction.
There I sat, listening to Mrs. Swartzentruber’s first day introductions while awaiting the inevitable. Minutes passed, and still nothing. Not a snap from his finger upon the back of my neck. Not a pencil smacking me on top of my head. Not even a spit ball glancing off the end of my earlobe. Nothing.
Maybe he didn’t notice that it was me who slid into a desk well within his grasp. Perhaps he didn’t recognize me. Better yet, maybe he’d forgotten about the year prior. Did he not remember tripping me in the cafeteria and causing me to drop my lunch tray, thus spilling my pizza and green beans all over myself in front of the entire third through sixth grades? Or how about committing each recess of the entire school year to making sure I was the first player knocked out of each and every dodge ball game played whenever the third and fourth graders squared off against each other?
Up until last year I had never met Richie Frank. Had no idea who he was. But for some reason he picked me out of a crowd of roughly sixty third graders, and decided to make my life miserable for the entire year.
Since he stood a solid three inches taller than me, wore his hair long and stringy, down over his ears and into a constant struggle with his eyelashes, and showed up each day with the likes of The Incredible Hulk, or the Superman emblem smeared across the front of his faded t-shirts, I was left virtually powerless to whatever form of torture he favored on any given day. The only days I ever caught a break, were the ones he missed.
When asked why it was always me who fell victim to his sinister pranks, Mom guessed that it was because I was one of the taller kids in my class. He wanted to show everyone how tough he really was by picking on one of the bigger third graders, but I didn’t buy it. I figured for whatever reason, Richie Frank just didn’t like me. Because of that fact, I didn’t like him either, and swore that one day I would find the will-power to get him back. As of the first day of fourth grade however, I wasn’t prepared for revenge.
Glancing at the clock hanging above the room’s chalk board, I suddenly realized that class had been in session for almost two hours. Introductions had already been made. Classmates had been given a chance to discuss their various summer adventures, to which I quietly declined.
Mrs. Swartzentruber, our cheery, middle-aged, fourth grade teacher, described in detail a trip she had taken with her husband to Spain over the summer while passing out an assortment of Polaroids showing the many sights she’d encountered.
Spinning about from row to row and passing out her many pictures, she was vibrant in an airy, light blue sun dress, which fluttered about like an umbrella when spun between one’s fingers. With her crisp auburn hair pulled into a tight bun atop her head, and armed with an open smile revealing teeth almost too white to be real, it was easy to see how much she truly loved her job.
We had already received several of our workbooks, and yet still not a peep from Richie as the morning passed by quickly. Stealing an errant glance over my shoulder while feigning a stretch, I noticed that he had barely moved from his somber, defeated position he’d held when I originally entered the classroom several hours earlier.
"Look at him over there," Brad said between mouthfuls of corn at our lunch table an hour later. He pointed his fork over to where Richie was sitting.
Richie Frank was slouched over his tray of food all by himself at a table closest to the wall and farthest from anyone else in the cafeteria. A year ago he would’ve been surrounded by his gang of mangy-haired buddies, talking as loud as possible and tossing tater tots at the younger kids, including of course, Brad and myself. With the day now half over, I had yet to spot him making eye contact with anyone in the school. His beady black eyes, small and featureless like a ferret’s, hadn’t left either a desk top or the laces of his sneakers the entire day.
I turned from where Richie sat, to the group of boys he normally hung around with. They were sitting across the cafeteria from him, as if unaware of Richie’s presence at all.
"He looks pretty bummed out," I said.
"Serves him right," Brad answered. "After everything he did to us last year, serves him right."
I turned my attention from Richie’s mournful appearance to just over his shoulder where, through one of the half dozen windows running along the east side of the cafeteria, I noticed how the overcast and humid morning had finally given in and allowed for a steady, late-summer downpour. I grinned at the site.
Rain during our lunch period meant one thing, indoor recess. And spending recess inside our tiny gymnasium meant dodge ball.
While most school districts have presently outlawed the game due to the potential of injury, back in the early ‘80's, dodge ball was by far the sport of choice throughout grade schools across the country.
The guidelines were simple. The gymnasium’s half court line separated two teams, which always ended up being one grade versus another. Two basketball sized, air-filled, rubber balls, and depending on the number of players, sometimes three or four, and a referee, which in our case, was a daily rotation between the third and fourth grade teachers.
The object of the game was to throw a ball as hard as possible at the opposing team in hopes of pelting someone, thus knocking them out of the competition. However, if your opponent caught the ball sent their way, the player who threw it was out of the game. The team who could manage to eliminate all of their opponents, won the match. The only rule, head shots were not permitted, resulting in the player who threw the ball, being pulled from all games for that day.
What was even more exciting than seeing the rain outside, was realizing that, unlike last year when my class was pummeled daily by the fourth graders, they had moved on and were now spending their recess time with the sixth grade. Now my classmates were the older veterans, faced with the thrilling task of challenging the younger third grade and making up for all of last year’s heartbreaking defeats.
In Berlin Elementary, this game, and how well each player performed, measured one’s level of masculinity. Even years later, while in highschool, if someone’s name was mentioned in conversation, he was often remembered by some phenomenal act he was able to achieve in grade school while in battle on the dodge ball court. The game put young men in their place along the ever important food chain of popularity amongst their classmates. It was that big.
Anticipation reigned heavy as everyone piled onto the small court. Aside from a few of the more athletic and daring females, most girls headed straight for the bleachers, opting to spend their recess watching the raucous, rather than becoming the victim of someone’s fastball.
Precious time wasn’t wasted on choosing sides. The third grade boys already knew of the school’s unspoken tradition, and thus, the fate of their demise. But as I eagerly watched them line up across the gym from my classmates, I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed they all appeared, almost confident in their preparation. I soon learned why.
While none of us knew it yet at the time, the class below ours consisted of a tightly knit group of stellar athletes the likes of which had never been seen in our community before. As they grew older, their Little League teams would three-peat as district champs. Excelling in soccer, they would capture the Pee-Wee league title, the first ever in that sport for our school. Years later, as highschool athletes, their prowess would continue, wrapping up State Titles in not only baseball and several individual track and field competitions, but in tennis singles and doubles finals as well. And in their senior year, above all odds, they would win our first ever Division IV State Basketball Championship over the biggest schools Cleveland and Columbus had to offer.
Five minutes into our first ever dodge ball match versus the third grade, my classmates and I soon realized what we were up against. I watched in horror as one by one, each of my fellow fourth graders found themselves disqualified due to either being unable to hang on to a ball fired in their direction, or by having their own serve snagged out of mid-air by an underclassman, as if it were nothing more than a balloon floating silently before them.
They attacked in hives, waiting until they possessed all four balls, then converging on one lone victim at once, pummeling him with an onslaught of air-filled, circular spheres, thrown at a velocity never before witnessed at this level. Moments after beginning the game, my teammates had dwindled from twenty-two players to four.
As one of the last remaining, I cheered on Brad as he gained a running start and rifled one of his patented serves directly at Bruce Yoder, who appeared to be their best player. With the ease and grace of a professional outfielder in the Major Leagues, Bruce reached out and leisurely cradled the ball as if it had been lazily tossed in his general direction during a harmless game of catch.
"This sucks!" Brad hollered, stomping over to the bleachers while shaking his head in disbelief. And as I surveyed my team’s futile situation, that’s when I realized that I was now one of only two remaining fourth graders left standing. Adding to my dismay, my only remaining teammate was Richie Frank.
Being two years older than his opponents, Richie had pretty much been the only thorn in the sides of the third graders, having been able to fend off every attack sent his way. However, as he released one of his throws, sending it spiraling off the knee of one of the dominating underclassmen, Richie stumbled while backing away from the center line, crumbling to the floor.
Like craving vultures circling their prey, three of the third graders lined up together and in unison, launched an aerial attack at my fallen teammate who could only duck his head in defense.
I reacted before even realizing what I was doing.
Dashing in front of Richie, I caught the first ball in my chest with a thud that sent me staggering backwards and losing my own footing.
Falling to my knees and seeing two more balls flying directly for my face, I quickly used the ball I had just caught as a shield, bouncing first one, the other from harm’s way, thus saving both Richie and I from elimination.
A roar of enthusiastic applause erupted from our sideline where my disqualified teammates whooped their approval. Even Mrs. Swartzentruber, while still telling stories of her summer trip to a group of girls gathered around her in the bleachers, rose to her feet and joined in with a chorus of hand clapping.
From behind I felt myself being lifted off the gym floor. It was Richie, now on his feet and helping me to mine. In his haste he had already retrieved one of the balls which had ricocheted off of mine seconds earlier. On his face he wore the first smile I had seen out of him all day. With sweat droplets on his forehead, but a twinkle in his eye, he leaned in toward me.
"That was awesome," he said.
Looking up at him, it was then when I realized that his eyes really weren’t beady little orbs belonging to some feral beast like I’d first envisioned. They were brown, and not in the least bit scary at all.
"Thanks," I answered between deep breaths, unable to believe what I had just done.
"Okay, this is how we’ll do it," he said, eyeing down the eight remaining players across the floor from us. "We go after the same guy each time, just like they’ve been doing to us. You throw low, I’ll throw high. One at a time, down they go. You ready?"
"Let’s nail that kid in the red-striped shirt. Go!"
Side by side we threw our balls in his direction, one flying up, one flying low, the high toss glancing off the boys shoulder and soaring onto the stage, knocking him out of the game.
"Green Geranimals shirt," Richie mumbled to me moments later.
Again we attacked, his throw high, mine low. This time it was my ball that bounced off our opponent’s shin, sending him stumbling to the gymnasium floor and out of the competition.
"How about that kid in those ugly plaid pants."
Onward we continued our comeback, not only knocking out yet another player, but sealing our fantastic finish moments later with a one-two punch thrown at Bruce Yoder, who caught my ball, but failed to dodge Richie’s, sealing the win.
It was an amazing comeback, but more importantly, an impressive duo had been formed. In front of the entire third and fourth grade student body, and somewhere amid the many shoulder slaps and high fives following our victory, Richie Frank and I had become friends. When only hours earlier I sat in front of him and feared for my young life, I now found myself atop the world, king of the dodge ball court, and an unlikely pal with one of the school’s roughest contingent who walked it’s halls.
Gone were the horrible memories from last year. On that day a bond had been formed. From that moment, be it at recess, during class, and while at lunch, Richie, Brad and myself were together all the time. It was exactly what I needed in order to get away from the growing tension at home.
I had become aware of the two lives I was living.
The one at school where I suddenly found myself thrust into a leadership role of my class due to one memorable game of dodge ball. And my life at home, listening to my parents from behind my closed bedroom door as the arguing continued and steadily worsened.
This was how things were throughout the majority of my fourth grade year. Until that fateful day when my two lives collided...