October 22, 2007
by Jason Kovacs
Age 10 and 11 at the time
When I was 9 years old me and my dad moved to Ballard because Dad didn't like Black people and Ballard was the only white neighborhood in Seattle where we could afford the rent. The elementary school in Ballard, Benjamin Franklin Day Elementary, was just like the other five elementary schools I'd been to up to that point except that the building was kind of old. It had cloak rooms with banks of hooks at kid-level and a lot of dark wood trim. It had hardwood floors and big windows. The building was a hold-over from the Roosevelt era and so were most of its teachers: old white guys in short sleeve shirts and polyester slacks who sported thick glasses and bad tempers.
The most popular kid in my 4th Grade class, my first class at B.F. Day, was John Hoffman. John was one of those kids who was just good at everything: good at sports, liked all the right music, always knew the answer, perfect handwriting, perfect grades, perfect hair. I didn't really have an opinion bout John per se. There'd been one like him at every school I'd attended and he was as expected, in his way, as the drinking fountain next to the bathrooms. I was busy being the new kid for the sixth time in three years and John was just another kid who didn't want to talk to me. His indifference was more welcome than the taunting of the bullies, but he never said two words to me and what I realized, at some instinctive level, was that whatever else John might have going for him, compassion wasn't on the list.
When the school year ended all us single-parent kids headed for our "off season" parents' places in far away lands and, when I came back the next year, I ended up getting moved to a mixed 5th and 6th grade class that was created three weeks into the school year. Kids were pulled from overcrowded classrooms to make the roster: two kids from each 5th grade class, two kids from each 6th grade class. And three weeks was long enough for teachers to decide who they didn't like, so I ended up in a class full of kids teachers hated.
It was kind of like The Breakfast Club meets The Dirty Dozen. We drove two teachers to quit in less than two weeks. We set one fire that resulted in the entire school being evacuated. And then we got Mr. Cash, a doctrinaire Jim Henson disciple and all around cool guy. We made a tacit decision to keep Mr. Cash, and so my year progressed.
And while I hung out in my class full of reprobates and morons, John Hoffman was in some other class being perfect. Sometimes I'd see the light of his perfection bursting down the hall, like explosions from an Advanced Placement chemistry class. He'd win the spelling bee, or publish an article in the Seattle Times Junior Journalist Program. The teachers talked about him in the hall. He was the superstar.
And me? I learned to make a bomb out of match heads that year.
The only place John and I had anything to do with each other was on the dodgeball court. B.F. Day had a dodgeball tradition that was unique in my public school experience: on the dodgeball court, kids tried to hurt each other. It wasn't just that we threw the balls as hard as we could, or aimed for each other's heads. I think all kids do that. But at B.F. Day we didn't use the standard red rubber dodge ball. At B.F. Day we used soccer balls, basketballs, and what I can only describe as pain balls: a kind of hard plastic ball that stayed spherical through rigidity rather than air pressure. B.F. Day dodgeball was all about the pain, and I was better at it than almost anyone, even John. However, in spite of my aptitude and my love of the game, I was away from the court the day someone broke John's leg with a soccer ball.
Of course I heard about it after the fact, but there wasn't much to the story: someone threw a soccer ball and it hit John in the knee. The whole joint went at once; the knee bent completely backwards and John went down screaming. We talked about it in hushed tones for the rest of the day and the principal said we couldn't play dodgeball with anything harder than a kickball from now. There was some grousing about that but otherwise we were all just amazed that it was possible: how could you break someone's leg with a ball?
The kid who'd done it, Adam Mitchell, was the temporary superstar and undisputed badass of the court for five whole days. Even with kickballs, kids scattered out of the way of his throws like they were dodging freight trains.
John he was out of school for a week before we heard that dodgeball had apparently saved his life. John had cancer and the tumor had weakened the bone in his knee. If it hadn't been for a fast-moving soccer ball the doctors might not have found it in time and he could have died. He was going to lose his leg above the knee, but he would live, and it was dodgeball that had saved him. And this was another kind of notoriety for Adam Mitchell, but he still wasn't too happy about going back to getting picked last for team-ups.
When Mr. Cash related the story of John's knee to us, Gordy raised his hand.
"Does this mean we can play dodgeball with soccer balls again?" Gordy wanted to know.
And Mr. Cash said, "No."
* * *
After the initial cancer revelation, Mr. Cash gave us a little tutorial about what cancer is and why we never had to worry about catching anything from John. And while he was telling us this he also told us about chemotherapy and radiation therapy and said that John would lose his hair and get sick and lose weight. And the thing Mr. Cash kept emphasizing was that we all needed to support John. That he might feel weird and that we needed to let him know that he still had friends. And Mr. Cash didn't ever come out and say, "John's going to feel like a freak because he's gonna be bald and one-legged in a class full of healthy kids," but that was the message we took away from it. He gave us a phone number at the hospital where we could call and an address we could send cards.
And I thought about that for the rest of the day.
And when I got home that night, I called John.
A kid picked up in the oncology ward -- which I think might actually still have been called a cancer ward back then. I asked if John was there and the kid said yeah, hold on. There was some talking in the background. Then he came back and asked who is it?
"Jason," I said. "Jason Kovacs. From B.F. Day."
"Okay, hold on," said the kid.
More talking in the background. The kid came back.
"He's in the bathroom," the kid said.
"Oh," I said. "Okay. Should I hold?"
"If you want." I could hear the shrug through the phone.
"Um," I said. "Okay."
So he put the phone down and I spent a little while listening to kids talking and laughing in the background. Then the kid came back.
"You still here?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"He's still in the bathroom. Chemo, you know."
"Yeah, okay," I said.
And he put the phone down. More talking and laughing in the background. Much longer wait. The kid picked up the phone again.
"You still there?" he asked.
"Yup," I said.
And I heard the distinctive sound of someone putting their hand over the receiver.
"Oh my god," said the kid. "He's still there!"
And then there was a lot of laughing.
The kid came on again a minute later and he almost had it together, but not quite.
"He's still in the bathroom," the kid said through a grin that distorted his words, even through the phone.
"Mm-hm," I said. "Okay. Thanks. Just. Uh. Tell him I called I guess."
"Sure thing," said the kid, and I could hear more laughter in the background; full on belly-laughing this time, and the kid was barely keeping his voice even.
And that was that.
I hung up the phone and stared at it for a while, thinking things over.
I tried it three more times later in the week, just to make sure I understood what was happening, and it was the same routine every time.
* * *
A few weeks later we heard that John had his surgery and everything went well. We heard he was doing wheelchair races in the halls and that the doctors were amazed at his progress. A month or two later he came back to school on crutches, with a fake aluminum leg.
The leg was on a catch, so John could make it fall off by pushing a button on his thigh. This was a big hit with the other kids and John was a superstar again in no time. As it happened, this was right about the same time Terry Fox, the famous one-legged cancer amputee, was making his epic run across Canada and so, of course, John started training for that right away and everyone knew he was going to make it.
As far as I know, he did.
He was still improving like a superhero two months into the next year, our sixth grade year, when a custody dispute took me out of town for four months. And by the time I got back to Seattle the school year was mostly over with.
I dropped out for my seventh grade year and my dad took me with him to Los Angeles.
I still think about John a lot.
I guess it's a good thing that he didn't ... I don't know -- lower his standards to talk to a guy like me just because of a little cancer?
I don't know.
But that's the story of John Hoffman. Or at least it's my story of it.