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Life was learned on the playground
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(This column originally appearted on Feb. 23, 2011).

There's something very comforting about the sounds of a playground. That sound of hundreds of kids shouting, playing, talking into a blend of youthful expression is a happy sound. It's the sound of kids just having a good time, far removed from the adult world of responsibilities.

There used to be the sound of chains emanating from the tetherball poles but I think someone decided against them out of safety concerns. On some campuses they've gone the same way of the monkey bars and tug-of-war.

That sound takes me back to my own days on the playground. We're talking late 1960's, mind you, but it seems like yesterday.

My first school was Catherine Everett Elementary in Modesto. The playground was within earshot of our front door. I'd walk home for lunch and remember the theme song of "Bewitched" playing on TV meant it was time to head back.

If you think about it, playgrounds were the places we learned the great lessons of life.

It was on the playground when we first learned of the cruelties of childhood. That's where the bad kids picked on the weaker kids. The yard duty always flagged somebody down and made an "arrest," taking a kid from a world of fun to a world of doom (the principal's office). Shoot, back then the principal was the judge, jury and executioner. He could - and did - administer justice swiftly.

It was on the playground that I learned that dangerous living often resulted in pain. There was always some kid knocking himself out or conking his head on the monkey bars. I personally learned that spinning yourself silly until you're dizzy is not a good way to pass the time. (I did a face skid on the blacktop and to this day I have an aversion to the taste of grit.)

Even the concept of popularity was learned here. If you were like me you learned what it felt like to have others notice your shortcomings when you were among the last students picked for dodge ball teams. I was among the ranks of the mediocre in terms of athletics. But what I lacked in athletic prowess I made up for in the classroom for I was called "brain." Besides being made to feel like a disembodied overdeveloped organ of gray matter - it just sounded freaky to me - I knew I wasn't any smarter than the next student; I just paid attention and did my work.

While it technically wasn't at school, a store parking lot is where I learned the value of looking both ways before crossing the street. In those days, the Modesto Police had some sort of Road Safety Fair in the parking of Montgomery Wards (now Burlington Coat Factory) on McHenry Avenue. The police set up a little mini-road system and us students had to try crossing the "street" as officers stood by with little peddle cars, itching to mow down any kid who failed to look both ways. You guessed it; apparently I failed to look both way and off to my side I heard an officer yell, "Bam!" He then cautioned me that I didn't look his way and was "dead." I was officially roadkill but the humiliation impressed upon me a very real determination that I was always going to look every time I set foot across the road.

On the playground I learned the real-life limits of freedom of speech. Once all of us good little children were sitting on the edge of the sidewalk as the teacher was giving a talk. I felt the urge to whisper to the kid next to me a flippant observation about the teacher. I don't remember exactly what I said; only that he didn't think it was nice. He grabbed my arm and sank all sharp fingernails of both hands into my young skin and tore at my flesh like some wild little beast. I sat in silence as my skin seared with pain. Hot tears were streaming down my cheeks, my feelins hurt more than my skin. Ever the good boy, I didn't haul off and hit back. If I could do it over again I would have retaliated in the interests of self-defense. I was only exercising freedom of speech but I was assaulted for it. Made me wiser in the way that I expressed my opinion.

The playground is the first place where I experienced the concept of the "love tap." I think I experienced my first romance on the playground. While boys and girls claim they don't like the opposite gender, we all know they do. Just watch them. Romances indeed take place in the early grades. I chased girls I liked and they chased me. The thrill of the chase only changed in method the older we got. Later I graduated to methods more sophisticated than the love tap - like passing notes in class. I'll never forget in the sixth grade when I passed a note to my crush, Christina Olsen, a cute little blonde. I watched as my note made its way across the room to her. I watched, with bated breath, as her mouth silently read my words and then her little nose scrunched up with sick disapproval. An arrow pierced my heart. I learned two things in that moment: You don't always get what you want and sometimes we put our hope in the wrong thing to make us happy.

Of course that works both ways. I remember the time I let down Kathy Barnett on the playground of Fair Oaks Elementary School in Oakdale. I still feel bad that I crushed her little romantic heart but there is no easy way to disappoint a fourth-grade love. Another lesson: You can't please everyone in life.

Most of the lessons I learned on the playground took root and made me a better person. We are, after all, products of our experiences. But I think the appeal of the sound of a playground is the call of the boy inside that just wants to have care-free fun just for fun's sake. Perhaps the adult in us would just like to cast off adulthood and imagine the day when we didn't have to worry about being adults.

Kids know how to play, don't they?

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