Monday, October 26, 2009

Washington School Days: 7. The Playground

            Peter L. (center) on the Washington School playground (VAL photo)

Dear George,


I asked fifth-grade acquaintance Martha what her favorite subject in school was this year, and she promptly replied “recess”.  That brought back memories.  At Washington Grade School we spent a lot of time on the playground at morning and afternoon recesses, and I’d say recess was my favorite too.  Like nowadays, play was mostly sex-segregated.  The girls spent a lot of time at hopscotch and jumping rope.  While boys would occasionally join in, they were less skilled, and they mostly did it for a joke.  The boys specialized in marbles which we bought at the candy store down the block and brought to school in a cloth bag we carried in our pants pocket.  To play, you would scoop out a circular depression in the dirt and use your shooter to knock marbles into the hole.  Kids would decide first whether they were playing for funsies or for keepsies.  Keepsies was more serious – the winner kept the other guy’s marbles.  Funsies were for practice or when you knew you were out-matched and bound to lose.


Every once in a while the division of the sexes would be temporarily halted, and all the kids would join together to play one or another of two games: (a) boys chase the girls; or (b) girls chase the boys.  The idea was pretty much the same.  All the girls lined up in a row along the fence on the east side of the playground, and the boys formed a row on the west side.  For “boys chase the girls,” the girls had to run across the playground to the west side fence without being grabbed by a boy.  If a girl was captured, the boy took her over to a holding area at the playground’s corner, then returned to grab somebody else.  “Girls chase the boys”, of course, was the identical game, only in reverse.  These were the most exciting games at Washington School and were accompanied by a lot of yelling and squealing, excitement, and embarrassment.  The other boys would tease you for chasing after whoever it was you were chasing, and likewise for the girls.  The boys caught the girls more often than the girls caught the boys.  This could have been because the boys were faster runners, or it could be that the boys were more highly motivated to escape.  In fact, some complained that, in “boys chase the girls,” girls would run toward certain popular boys rather than trying to escape from them. 


Whenever we got a heavy snow in the winter the boys would play “Tackle”.  We needed at least two inches of snow because of the hard cinder playground.  An individual kid was designated the runner, given a football and a headstart, and the crowd of 20 or 30 other boys chased after him in an effort to tackle him.  Whoever tackled the runner then got to be the runner himself.  Tommy Hannon was the fastest kid in the school, and it would sometimes take ten minutes for the mob to bring him down.  One time Tommy ran straight at me.  I dove down and grabbed his ankles and down he went.  I don’t know who was more surprised, Tommy or me.  But I did get to be the next runner.  It was exhilarating to have the whole school chasing you, but I only stayed on my feet for thirty seconds, if that.


There was a big hickory tree at the southeast corner of the schoolyard, and it produced an abundant supply of nuts every fall.  A kid named Arnold, who was reputed to be a little socially backward, lived directly across the street.  After kids came back from lunch, Arnold would come out in his back yard, give a yell, and the rest of the boys would gather on the playground across the street next to the hickory tree.  Then we would start throwing nuts at Arnold while he would dodge back and forth.  He could do pretty well dodging single throws, but when we coordinated efforts and threw 15 or 20 hickory nuts simultaneously we would be bound to hit him.  This was met with loud cheers.  Shortly before the afternoon school bell rang, Arnold would pick up all the nuts from his yard so his parents wouldn’t notice and bring them back to the playground so we could use them again the next day.  This was a lot of fun for all concerned, and it was Arnold’s daily moment in the limelight, even though he got a few bumps and bruises in the process.




Gmail Comments:  Phyllis S-S (10-30-09):

Dear Dave,
This letter brought back so many memories.  Among them the same, exact games from my recesses untile the teacher police took over and organized recess.  That's correct.  Organized play.  None of boys chasing girls, vice versa and tackling.  They were deemed too dangerous and not socially acceptable.  Well, you can imagine what happened - the aggression was not repressed but went directly into the classroom.  The teachers prevailed with the organized play though.  It was a huge loss that I still mourn.

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