Stephen Tobolowsky: The Indignities of the Seventh Grade

Snapshots of life at home.
Oct. 3 2012 3:45 AM

My Insignificant Year

A miserable basketball team, a Nazi classmate, a fateful standardized test: notes on the indignities of the seventh grade.

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With those storm clouds on the horizon I decided to make the best of things. Why worry about an uncertain future when you can use that energy to worry about an uncertain present?

Like many kids my age I threw myself into athletics. Who knows? Maybe I would be good. My brother was. Paul was great at every sport. Maybe athletic prowess was part of my yet-to-be-revealed genetic makeup.

I played on several teams at Carpenter. In football, I was the kid at the bottom of the pile. In basketball, I was the forward with the bleeding face.

This was before the age of specialization, so we had one coach for everything. Coach Hester. He was a trim, athletic man with a larger than average head. He would watch our incompetence day in and day out. He developed a characterological gesture of constantly rubbing his forehead as if he was trying to get rid of the images of our games from his brain. The rubbing didn’t help his already receding hairline.

During a time-out at one of the basketball games in which we were being slaughtered by the other group of children, he signaled for us to gather around him. He said in low tones, “Boys … we have to start playing defense. You got to at least put your hands up. And Tobolowsky, don’t just stand there. Move!”

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I was gasping for air from my complete lack of conditioning. I said, “Coach, where do you want me to go?”

Coach Hester looked at me. His head turned red and he started rubbing his face again with such ferocity I was sure he was getting down to the mitotic layer. “Where do I want you to go? Where do I want you to go?” He paused for a moment to reflect on how badly he wanted to keep his job. He took the high road, “Toward the ball. Start by moving your feet. If you don’t know what those are they’re the flat things at the bottom of your legs.”

The fact that we were terrible wasn’t all Coach Hester’s fault. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I was probably the weakest. I couldn’t run, shoot, or pass. I averaged four points a season.

Our team was configured with three guards and two forwards. No one played center. It didn’t matter, no one was over 5 feet tall. Our main offensive weapons were our three guards: John, Wally, and Roy. John was an almost perfect shot from within three feet of the basket. Wally was actually good. Roy had red hair.

Coach Hester spent most of our practices drilling them on how to “weave the ball.” This was a combination of dribbling and passing the ball in a figure-eight pattern. It was a beautiful thing to watch. The problem was there was no clear exit strategy.

On every possession, John, Wally, and Roy would weave the ball slowly down the court. They would weave the ball across the midcourt line. They would keep weaving it. And then they would weave it some more. Perhaps Coach Hester intended this offense to lull our opponents into a deep complacency—to create a sense of ennui. Maybe it was to eat up valuable minutes off the clock to lessen our margin of defeat so it would look better in the school paper. Perhaps he was just an advocate of that time-honored sport’s philosophy that “there is no defense like a slow offense.”

When I said weaving the ball had no clear exit strategy that wasn’t exactly true. I was the exit strategy. After an indeterminate amount of weaving, I was supposed to run to the free throw line. That was the cue to throw me the ball. Then I would hold up one, two, or three fingers to signal to John, Wally, Roy, and the members of the other team, what play we were going to run.

It was all academic in that we never had a play. But even if we’d had a play it wouldn’t have mattered. I usually didn’t catch the ball. More often than not it went through my hands and out of bounds or worse, it would hit me in the face. I would start bleeding or crying. I already had two pairs of glasses smashed against my nose by this offense.

One game, I ran over to the sidelines and complained to Coach Hester that I thought my nose was broken. He started rubbing his head so hard I thought he would lose his eyebrows. With a minimum of colorful language, he said that I needed to either catch the ball or get a pair of rubber eyeglasses that they sold at local sporting stores for nearsighted basketball players like me. I wasn’t sure that my commitment to the game was great enough to ask Mom and Dad to buy me a pair of rubber glasses.

We won two games that year. A miracle. I have to say, losing didn’t bother us that much. We always tried and we never quit. We loved practice. The other boys were fun to be around. The parents were relatively well-behaved. They came to the games every Saturday morning and cheered us on despite the certainty that we would lose.

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky.
Stephen Tobolowsky

Photograph by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.

One day after a game, John invited us over to his house for Cokes and sandwiches. We headed over laughing about the beating we just took. We walked into his living room and there on a side table was a large bust of Adolf Hitler with two German flags on the wall above it. There were copies of Storm Trooper magazine laid out on their coffee table as if they were Highlights magazines at the pediatrician’s office. There was something shocking and refreshing that John’s family didn’t feel the need to tidy up after a Bund rally.

I am sure they had no idea I was Jewish. It was a question of probability: There were only three Jewish families in Oak Cliff—the suburb we lived in about 25 miles from Dallas. To them I was just “Tobo.” I didn’t say anything about the silent tribute to Hitler nor do I recall any of the other boys saying anything. We just enjoyed the pimento cheese.

Then things changed. Somehow John discovered I was Jewish. I found out the hard way when, out of nowhere, he came up behind me and pushed me down a flight of stairs at school. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt. He walked past me and yelled, “Dirty Jew.” That was a shocker.

In arithmetic class I was waiting in line to use the pencil sharpener. John came up behind me and stabbed me in my right buttocks with his pencil. I told him to stop it. I was the same guy. I was Tobo. He looked at me, and tried to stab me again. I grabbed the pencil from his hand and broke it into pieces and threw it away. I looked at him. His eyes blazed—not with hatred, not with joy, but with a strange sense of accomplishment.

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