By: Will McMillan
Mr. Johnson strutted through the sweating mass of wriggling 8th graders, a track-suited Moses parting the Red Sea. His red and white sneakers squeaked on the wooden gym floor like dolphins engaged in an absurd screaming match. His muscular frame flexed as he moved, brown hair blending into his deeply tanned skin, sapphire blue eyes, appraising us all. With an index finger for a barrel and a thumb for a hammer, he shot at each one of us in turn, two words from his mouth as his lone ammunition.
“Shirts!” with one shot. “Skins!” with another. And on down the line, every one of his students appropriately marked. Five different schools by the time I’d reached the 8th grade and at every school it was always the same. The girls would be segregated away, to do whatever the girls did for their 40-odd minutes of physical education, and the boys would be wrangled together for theirs. At every school, at every gym time, the game was always exactly like this.
“Shirts!” And a boy would move to one side.
“Skins!” And a boy would move to another.
The Shirts played sports after school. The Shirts always seemed to have girlfriends, were athletic and looked good when covered in sweat. The Shirts claimed to be sexually active, threw parties that were long lasting and epic, and could make wearing an ordinary white T-shirt seem exotic. The Shirts were the boys Mr. Johnson would have hung out with if he were their age.
The Skins, in contrast, never played sports. The Skins wore bottle thick glasses and were either scrawny and pimpled or chubby and pimpled. The Skins raised their hands when a teacher asked for a volunteer to read from the textbook. They tucked their T-shirts into their gym shorts, they never had girlfriends, but maybe, secretly, wished they’d had boyfriends. The Skins were the boys Mr. Johnson would make fun of if he were our age.
“Shirts! Skins! Shirts! Skins…”
As they were marked, the Shirts flocked together on one side of the gym, forming a chatting, good-natured wad. At lunchtime, at recess, and in class when they could, these boys were used to being together, were used to being told that they were the “Shirts.”
As we were called, the Skins, our puny arms wrapped over our frail, concave chests, we stood near one another but not quite together. Half-naked, shivering in the frigid gym air, we worried our hands over our faint, hairless nipples and wild patches of acne. Embarrassed of our slight, awkward bodies, we silently insisted on a deliberate distance. Five different grade schools by the time I’d hit the sixth grade, and we carried ourselves the same at each one.
Split into two separate tribes, the mid-court line of the gym the border between us, Mr. Johnson let loose a dozen maroon rubber balls from a frayed, yellowed sack. Mindlessly, the balls rolled down the gym floor, some more toward the Skins, some more toward the Shirts. Every last one up for grabs. Jamming his index finger into the air, Mr. Johnson jammed the silver whistle that dangled on his chest between his lips. He paused, twisting his head back and forth. On either side of the border, the tribes stood at the ready. Our legs spread apart, arms out at our sides, watching our enemies as they stood watching us, just watching and waiting, holding our breaths. The whistle screeched, Mr. Johnson jumped back, and the gymnasium thundered with a stampede of footfalls. More dolphin squeaks, hammering our ears. Balls were snatched up, aimed in a hurry, then balls were unleashed in a volley at the nearest boy on the other side of the line. The game had begun.
Since a hit didn’t count if a ball touched the floor first, we took the full brunt of the hit every time. Pliable and soft when held in your hands, the rubber balls were rock solid hard when whipped off your stomach, your chest, or your back. To say nothing if you happened to catch one in the head. Or the nuts. Not particularity blessed with either a quick sense of aim or a strong throwing arm, the balls the Skins threw were easily avoided. The Shirts, conditioned by natural ability, could take out a Skin with minimal effort. A face set with glasses was the juiciest target and watching a pair of bifocal lenses get launched through the air, the face of the wearer twisted in pain, was considered the most esteemed of all prizes. Aside from the squeaks and squeals of our shoes, the only other sound you were certain to hear was the smack of a hard rubber ball on skin or a skull. No hit was too hard, no attack deemed illegal. Every inch of the body was considered fair game.
“You’re out!” Mr. Johnson would yell, and a Skin would stagger away toward the wall. One after another we Skins would stack up, until the wall was lined with our panting, sweating, red-welted bodies. The only way back into the game was if someone on your team caught a ball thrown at them. Every so often a Skin pulled this trick, would catch a ball hurled at their body, and another Skin would reluctantly hobble back in. The advantage, still, belonged to the Shirts. Having managed at last to smack a Shirt out, no sooner would he go to lean on the wall before another Shirt caught a ball and he was back in the game.
“Good catch! Good catch!” Clapping his hands, Mr. Johnson would point at the Shirt who’d just made the catch. “Good job! Way to go!” The congratulated Shirt would bask in his praise, proud of his work, proud to be noticed. Then, Mr. Johnson’s attention would turn toward the Shirt that was rescued, and his congratulations would shift into stern condemnation. “You’ve gotta pay attention! You’ve gotta make an effort! C’mon! I want to see you make an effort out there! Keep your eyes on the game and keep your butt off the wall! You want those boys over there taking you out? C’mon!”
Except for shouting us out for a hit, Mr. Johnson saved most of his words for the Shirts. When the Shirts were successful, when they made a hit or a catch, he was their best friend, their ally, their twin. When a Shirt missed a shot or was, worse, taken out, Mr. Johnson abandoned any sense of good will and instead became that Shirt’s sole adversary. His voice rose above the incessant squeal of our shoes, his words a harsh jumble of prosecution and praise.
“Good job! Nice catch! Hey, are you blind? Do you want to get hit? Is that what you want? Way to go! See, that’s how you do it! That’s how you do it! You’ve gotta…are you paying attention? C’mon! I can’t believe you missed him! He’s the slowest one on their team and you missed him? God! Now, that’s a hit! I call that a hit! You’re out! Yeah! Oh, he got you! You’re out, man! I can’t believe this! You’re out! You’re out!”
Mr. Johnson had every Skin pegged as a loser. To him, every misfire we threw, every time we were hit, we were simply fulfilling our destiny. If we managed to actually tag a Shirt out, it wasn’t because we were skilled or athletic. Not even lucky. If we took out a Shirt, it was because that Shirt was distracted. That Shirt was being stupid, careless or lazy, allowing a Skin to take the advantage. And that just couldn’t be.
Egged on by Mr. Johnson’s mounting frustration, the Shirts would throw harder, meaner, but as a result made more mistakes. The Shirts had the advantage with their natural talents; as Skins, there was never a question as to who’d win the game. But their general sense of camaraderie, of teamwork, of what it meant to be seen as a Shirt, seemed to erode the longer Mr. Johnson called out their blunders. Five different grade schools by the time I’d reached the 8th grade, and there was always a point in the game when the Shirts, red-faced and weary in a way that had nothing to do with how hard they might throw or how many times they’d been hit, began to look and behave as if they were being assaulted with something much more destructive than hard rubber balls.
“You can’t let those wimps win!” Mr. Johnson shouted, casting an eye at the bare-chested boys scrambling away from the onslaught. On the off chance we weren’t naked enough, a bit of name calling stripped us down even more. “You gonna let the wimps take you out? You’ve gotta be kidding!” Sweat pouring from their faces, the Shirts grew increasingly frantic, as the game became less about taking aim with a ball and more about restoring Mr. Johnson’s good graces.
Eventually, as always, it boiled down to two or three Skins. The Shirts would fire their balls in a group, concentrating their attack, and en mass the Skins would be out. Boom. Boom. Boom. That round of the game was over. Mr. Johnson would applaud, thrilled that (he) the Shirts had accomplished (his) their goal. He’d blow his whistle, and the game would reset. Forty-odd minutes for physical education, and we still had another 30 to go. Again, Mr. Johnson would place the balls in between the two anxious tribes.
“Alright! Here we go! Round two!”
Round two would end the same as round one, and round three would end the same as round two. In spite of what the movies suggested, where the underdog makes good at the end, scoring the touchdown or making the basket, we never came close to getting a victory. We were not going to win. Every Skin knew it. Every Shirt knew it. And, clapping his hands for the Shirts at the end of round three, Mr. Johnson certainly knew it.
“Now that’s what I was wanting to see!” he said, kicking the balls to the far end of the gym. “I wanted some effort, and you gave me some effort!” Raising a hand in the air, Mr. Johnson stood still as the Shirts passed him by, expecting to receive one of many high-fives. The Shirts would pretend not to notice, keeping their eyes on each other, leaving his hand entirely un-fived. They’d given him effort; they gave what they had to. After that, they gave nothing else.
In the locker room after, the entire class in various stages of undress, the Shirts would go over the game with each other. Who’d made the best hit. Who threw the hardest. Who was the best at dodging a ball. Now shirtless themselves, they’d eventually approach us Skins, marveling at the harsh, scarlet stains that covered our bodies.
“Look at that! Man! You took a beating! Look how red you are!”
“Yeah. Uh-huh, I know.”
The Shirt would point at a mark on their body. “You got me good right here! See that? Look! You totally nailed me right here. Man! Totally clobbered me! Are you sore? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, super sore…but I’m okay.”
“Yeah! Me too!”
This wasn’t an invitation to a party or an invitation to lunch. We weren’t suddenly friends, we weren’t suddenly on the same side of the line. But free of the influence that forced us to split down the middle, we didn’t have to exactly be enemies. We could share some of the bruises, we could share a few battles, we could share the knowledge that we’d taken hits to our bodies, both inside and out. And we could look at each other, point at the places that took the most damage, and say, “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
Will McMillan is a queer writer, born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. His essays have been featured in The Sun, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, and Redivider literary journals, among others. See more of his work at willjmcmillan.com Twitter: @willmcmn.