by Troy Elliott, VaHomeschoolers’ “Dad Files” Columnist


Originally published in the January-February 2002 VaHomeschoolers Newsletter.

Like you, I was shaped by the events of my childhood. Perhaps unlike you, I mean that literally.

I’m talking here about “rocket ball,” which was a regular activity in my elementary school’s gym class. This “sport—and I use that term in the same way that one uses the word “music” to describe Limp Bizkit— was a grotesque mutation of the old playground stalwart known as “dodge ball” which, if I remember correctly, involved lots of giggling and high-spirite shenanigans. Rocket ball involved mostly swelling. For me anyway.

Rocket ball was played in a gym. Kids were divided into two teams, and five to seven volleyballs were lined up at center court. Both teams stood away from the balls on either end of the court, and at the whistle, would stampede to center court to get the balls. After that, it was pretty much a melee. The whole game involved trying to hit each other with the balls. The only rule was that you couldn’t cross center court, even to run screaming from the floor. If you caught the ball, you could stay in. If the ball hit you and you were unable to catch it due to being knocked unconscious or the fact that you were already in a fetal position on the floor, you were out, and your limp body was hauled off to courtside, which, after about 10 minutes, began to resemble that outdoor hospital scene from Gone with the Wind.

Because public schools are required by law to make every activity mind-numbing, frightening, or traumatizing in some way (a successful combination of all three gets you grant money), Rocket Ball was cleverly worked into the curriculum to begin in sixth grade -at precisely the point where (A) gym class becomes “physical education” and boys and girls are separated; and (B) boys are at the most disparate stages of physical development. Half of us looked like Opie. The other half looked like Ted Nugent.

This was your basic Darwinism at work: the small, slow, and weak were to be weeded out. And when it came to small, slow, and weak, I was a trifecta winner, and thus little more than a genetic grease spot on the road leading to Wellington, Ohio’s ultimate goal of total global domination of all things involving throwing volleyballs really, really hard.

But, irony of ironies, being small and terrified made me a more difficult target, and I wo uld often wind up among a dwindling group of survivors who were being faced down by an angry mob of volleyball wielding behemoths who could throw so hard that if the ball missed you or actually drove itself through your torso, it would hit the back wall a nd bounce back into their waiting hands. The fact that they lacked opposable thumbs didn\rquote t seem to affect their ability to handle the balls.

Why do I mention all this? Because I think Rocket Ball divested me of the last shred of competitiveness I had in me. My interest in competing against my peers was literally pounded out of me, along with whatever baby teeth I had left.

I’m not alone in this. Among the families we know who homeschool, there are some very dedicated non-competitive types. Granted, these p eople may not have been victims of Rocket Ball, but somewhere along the line, something happened to make them avoid competitive situations. Often, this aversion can be traced back to their childhood, to prolonged family games of the dreaded Monopoly or th e even more dangerous Scrabble (whose sheer evil is surpassed only by the card game Hearts, a pastime that was heaved forth from the very gut of Hell).

So you’re thinking, that’s cool, non-competitiveness is what homeschooling’s all about –pulling your kid out of the jungle of traditional school, and allowing her to develop in this easy, tension-free way. And I guess that’s true. One need look no further than the local soccer field for proof that nobody can screw things up for kids like a bunch of earnest adults.

So non-competitiveness is good, right? Maybe, maybe not. This issue of the newsletter is about “homeschooling out of the box,” and I think that sometimes we have to look at the boxes we’ve put ourselves in, our own personal fears and biases that shape our assumptions about what is and isn’t a good “learning experience” for our kids. We homeschoolers can be a pretty self-righteous lot. And that doesn’t do anyone any good.

I bring all this up because we just returned from the Virginia FIRST LEGO League state finals, where our group of homeschooled kids competed with about 60 other teams (ages 9-14) to design and program a LEGO-based robot to accomplish a certain number of tasks. Awards were also given to additional science research the kids did aro und the subject of global warming.

That’s way too short a description to do the competition any justice, but the point is this: the whole project is very competitive, pretty daunting, and way, way, way more complicated than anything I ever attempted as a kid, or you either, I bet. And once again, the homeschooled teams -and there were several, plus a few that combined homeschoolers with traditional school kids- did very well.

But my point is this: the whole experience showed me that competitiveness isn’t necessarily an evil thing to be avoided at all costs. We all know that working hard and trying your best is a good thing generally, but I think some of us had to come to grips with the idea that working hard and trying your best can sometimes be applied to situations in which there are winners and losers. We had to accept that the concept of there being winners and losers doesn’t automatically taint a whole event. Our kids worked very, very hard, and did a great job. They won nothing at state, but they con quered their own obstacles, and navigated their way through a series of tiny dramas that played themselves out during the whole process. And I don’rquote t think it would’ve been the same experience without the sense of competition. They are better people for it, I think.

And maybe me and my “competition-is-bad” friends are a little better off, too. Thanks to the people who were coaching our team, and thanks to the kids themselves, I think we were shown how it is that hard work and commitment can be encouraged, and how contests don’t have to be about the fear of failure, humiliation, or being hit in the head with a volleyball thrown at 60 mph.

Was there adult meddling at the LEGO competition? Of course there was -we’re talking adults here. Were some teams led by adults who were living out their lives through the achievements of the kids they were coaching? Are there flies at a picnic? This was a kids’ competition, so of course there were adults there bent on making it a miserable experience.

The competition-phobic among use could’ve used those bad examples as the proof that these kinds of contests are a bad thing. But I think it all depends on the box you\rquote re in, and your willingness to poke your head outside. We were fortunate to have a coach and mentor who thought it was just as important for the kids to make mistakes as it was to get things right. Our kids learned a lot of things the hard way, but they learned them.

And -shocker of shockers- I think the kids were actually trying to win. They were disappointed when they didn’t, but not crushed. They made some notes for next year’s contest, then were driven home, where I hope they promptly started goofing off and doing absolutely nothing productive.

So I think that maybe those of us who are post-New Age reconstituted hippie wannabe homeschoolers and unschoolers who see ourselves as being in this kind of boxless state of educational grace need to take a look around and see how our biases are limiting the opportunities that we offer our kids. Maybe we were just really lousy competitors, and never quite got it. Whose fault is that?

Of course I could be wrong. If so, next year I’m going to suggest that the kids dispense with all the fancy robot programming and just start chucking the dang things at each other. Welt-wise, it could be a very rewarding experience.

©2002, Troy Elliott. All rights reserved

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