Dodge Ball by Donna Gephart

What does gym class in my day have to do with reading (and writing) today?

Sometimes, a lot.

When I took gym (not P.E.), Mr. Rizzo at Solis-Cohen Elementary School blew his whistle and made us climb a thick rope suspended from the ceiling – or in my case, hang there helplessly, while my arms trembled.

Mr. Rizzo timed our pull-ups, which again entailed me hanging desperately onto a bar, unable to make upward motion, all while wearing an embarrassing one-piece blue gym suit, with tight elastic around the legs.  I’d almost forgotten those dreadful gym suits until Rainbow Rowell wrote about them in her recent phenomenal YA novel, Eleanor & Park.  Thanks a lot, Rainbow.  Now, I’ll have to resume therapy.

I’m not sure which was worse – the horse – an apparatus that required one to run, grasp the handles and vault upward and over.  (A wicked scene with the horse is included in my novel, As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!  It involves unbridled humiliation and a broken wrist.)  Or playing dodge ball.  Always last chosen, I spent the “game” ducking, running (away) and praying I wouldn’t be knocked unconscious by the red ball hurtling toward my face.

How, you ask, is this like reading (and writing)?

I’m getting there.

In Mr. Rizzo’s class, I despised exercise.  I was actually glad when I got asthma and had a note that excused me from gym (not P.E.).

Thanks to Mr. Rizzo and his sadistic torture devices, I didn’t discover there was joy to be had in exercise until later in high school, when I started playing tennis with friends at the public courts.  Then there were the long walks with my best friend, Jeanne, to Tookany Creek Park.  And later, in college, those evening Frisbee games with my friend, Amanda, and all the cute boys who wandered over joined us.

Exercise, I’d discovered, could be gloriously fun.  Even the Jane Fonda videos I did while wearing rainbow-striped leg warmers.  Yeah, I never did master the art of fashionable workout garb.

What dodge ball was to me . . . reading (and writing) is to some kids — something to be avoided lest one be smashed in the face with a big red ball.

It’s hard for me to believe reading can ever feel like that for anyone.

Reading was a haven for me during a lonely and sometimes chaotic childhood.

I was let loose in our public library to choose whatever I wanted, even when I wandered into the adult section way before I should have.  Among the shelves in the children’s department, I had the great pleasure of discovering Mr. Poppers Penguin’s and The Hundred Dresses, in which Wanda Petronski was exactly like me – broke, an outsider and extremely creative.

I developed a deep love of reading because it filled a deep need in me.  Also because no one ever made me write a report about the books I loved from the library.  No one ever asked me to identify three similes and a metaphor from The Hundred Dresses.  No one ever told me Mr. Popper’s Penguins wasn’t at my reading level.

No one ever chided me for reading Richie Rich and Flintstone comic books, “true” ghost stories or The Guinness Book of World Records.

By the time I was tested in school or given leveled readers, it was too late.  I already loved reading so deeply no one could take it away from me.  No one could turn my book love into dodge ball.

But it’s not that way for some kids today.

Recently, when I was in the Barnes and Noble in the children’s section – I’m always in the children’s section – a young girl grabbed a book, held it to her chest then presented it to her mother.  “This is the one I want.”  The girl was so excited, she couldn’t stand still.  The mother glanced at the back cover and put it back.  “It’s not your reading level.”

“But, you said I could pick anything I—“

“Pick something harder.”

The girl would not pick something else.  Her mom did.  And I’ll bet it lies unread on her bookshelf still.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban is below my reading level, but I dare you to pry it from my fingers.

Can you imagine being tested on the latest installment of 50 Shades of Gray?  (Okay, I totally didn’t read those books.)

            Please identify three obstacles the main character faced in the book.  Use full sentences and correct punctuation.

We adults love reading books that other book lovers rave about, then we want to talk about how much we loved or didn’t love them.  That’s it.  We do not wish to be quizzed and graded.  “I got a 70 on Gone Girl, and that goes into my final grade.”    We do not want it cataloged and counted toward an artificial reward.  “If you read The Help and Sarah’s Key, you’ll earn a coupon for a free personal pan pizza.”  We do not want it judged on its perceived merit.  “Surely you can pick something more challenging than Jodi Picoult’s latest.”

And we love to dork out over meeting our favorite authors.

Over Spring Break, the kids in our neighborhood were playing in front of our house.  They can’t help themselves; we have a basketball hoop and an open patch of grass that seems to beckon them.

Because I’m always putting books in kids’ hands, I went outside and gave each of the kids – three boys and a girl — a brand new book.  The girl went home and had finished the book by that afternoon.  She couldn’t wait to tell me.  The one boy I’d hoped to reach – the one who plays violent video games most of the day —  said, “I didn’t read it.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “It’s about dogs.  It’s great.  It’s by Gary Paulsen, and he’s great.”

“Nah.”  He shook his head.  “I’ll save it for school.  Books are work.”

Sigh.

Recently, I was one of three judges for a local middle school writing contest.  One entry stood out – creative and funny, it told why we shouldn’t choose his entry.  Clearly this kid loved writing and understood how to use language creatively.

The other two judges suggested a different essay as the winner because it brimmed with details and followed the writing rules the children had been taught.

These are the rules children in our area are taught:

1.  In the first paragraph, tell us what you’re going to tell us.

2.  In the next three paragraphs, tell us.

3.  Conclude by telling us what you just told us.

Writing becomes dodge ball.  Blam!  Red ball right in the face.

I bow to educators who make reading and writing fun and accessible, who make it personal and meaningful and . . . a joy.  I’ve met so many of them, from my 10th grade English teacher, Myra Durlofsky, who had us modernize Romeo and Juliet then act it out . . . to Deb Tyo’s 6th grade class that made a toilet paper, hula hoop-inspired video to invite me to Skype with them.

The passion of these educators for all things book practically oozes out of them.  They know how to turn a non-reader into a life-long, joy-filled lover of books, like only a superhero can.

To all those who make reading and writing not dodge ball, I thank you with all my heart.  To those who make it dodge ball with testing and judgment and grades . . . I give you my stupid blue gym suit.  (Watch out; the elastic will totally dig into your thighs.)

 

Donna Gephart is the author of  OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH,MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! and HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL. In addition to writing books for children, Donna has written for the following publications:  Family Circle Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Newspaper, Parenting, Highlights for Children, Scholastic’s Storyworks Magazine and many others. Originally from Philadelphia, Donna now lives in South Florida with her husband and two sons. You can find her online at http://www.donnagephart.com/ or on her blog at http://www.donnagephart.blogspot.com/.