The Florida sun was sweltering, and the atmosphere of anticipation was thick and contagious. I had just marched from the barracks—the dorms of Florida State University—alongside my team to join the hundreds of other boys outside on the battlefield. What was the battlefield in question? A grassy field. What was our weapon of choice? Dodgeballs.
Oh, dodgeball, the classic American game that turns boys to men. It was the annual double-elimination tournament for the 75th Session of the Florida American Legion Boys State Program. Many of the boys invited to Boys State were top athletes or JROTC cadets; others were also academic leaders and at the top of their class. I was the latter, as well as one of the shortest and least athletic boys present. There was a cloud of tension hanging over my performance alongside these other teenagers, amongst whom I already felt out of place.
But what I lacked in height, I planned to make up for in strategy. I had not read Sun Tzu's The Art of War, but I knew a carefully arranged plan would beat out any wave of testosterone–filled teenagers raging against my team. The night before the big day, I had studied the intricacies of professional dodgeball. I attempted to detail my discoveries to my teammates, but the boys did not seem to entirely absorb what I was saying. Boys State itself is a competitive environment by nature and design, and our group had been winning each daily election. The general aura was confidence for most and cockiness for some.
This aura remained as we assumed our places for the first match the next morning. The judge blew the whistle and our boys bolted to the front lines. Chaos ensued. I saw boys dropping in my peripheral vision as those around me were pelted with red spheres of plastic and terror. My heart was pounding, my breath came out in droves, and I was dripping with adrenaline.
We lost our first match. It was no surprise that this was due to our failure to communicate with one another; each member of my team simply ran into the battle, pelting dodgeballs into nothingness. Whatever plan I had tried explaining the previous night ceased to exist. I watched my team—who I had felt so intimidated by the entire week—reduced to the losing side.
Our egos deflated, sweat pooling in the fabric of our shirts, and with no other foreseeable option, my team had no choice but to reluctantly listen again for a sound idea for survival. I elaborated on the various strategies we should employ. We steeled our resolve and readied ourselves for our next, and potentially last, match. The judge blew the whistle, and the boys bolted to the front lines.
This match was different. Rather than slipping on the dewy Florida grass, the boys and I weaved back and forth, and paid much more attention to defending rather than attacking. We emerged victorious in our second round, and continued our winning streak for the next round. And the next.
As we continued to sweep the other teams all the way to the finals, the other boys trusted me for guidance. I ended up calling the movements for our team, commanding "Ad!" from midfield when it was advantageous to advance. When we lost in the final match, I was filled with nothing but pride for our team.
I had proven myself and rallied a group of boys I had met only days prior to victory, in the form of communication. In the process, I discovered that my sense of confidence did not stem from how I stacked up against those more athletic than me or with more extracurricular achievements.
My pride comes from how I was able to invest all of my energy into something that mattered only for a handful of hours, alongside people who had only the slightest idea of who I was, and make it more than a losing match. As a Penn student, it is not difficult to feel inadequate among the impressive achievements and resumes of my classmates. I am fortunate enough to hold the role of class president while simultaneously balancing my first year at college, and all of the surprises that accompany it. But through the art of dodgeball, I have learned to carefully plan my strategy out one day at a time before I execute, alongside the people I love the most.