The other day I was driving down Moffet Road by Carroll Fowler Elementary School with the windows rolled down. I heard the sound of kids playing, which for me has always been a very peaceful sound. The sound of hundreds of kids shouting, playing, talking into a blend of youthful expression is a happy one. I think because it takes me back to the days of just having a good time, far removed from the adult world of responsibilities.
There used to be the sound of chains clanking on 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" meant it was time to head back.
While a lot of education went on inside the classroom, a lot of life's lessons were learned on the playground during recess.
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 either stand by the wall or head to a world of doom in the principal's office. 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 as your await the teacher to open the classroom. I did a face plant - more like cheese grate -- on the asphalt. After the teacher took me in and washed the grit off my stinging face, I was sent home to recover.
The playground is where you develop the concept of popularity. If you were like me, you learned what it felt like to have others notice your shortcomings as 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. I was called "brain," a term I hated. I felt like a freak, some kind of overdeveloped organ of gray matter; but I knew I wasn't any smarter than the next student. I just paid attention and did my work. I also felt like they were trying to butter me up so that I would display my answers so they could copy during tests. Shielding my answers from their eyes with a cupped hand certainly did not help out with my popularity.
While it technically wasn't at school, a store parking lot is where I learned the value of looking both ways before crossing the road. Modesto Police sponsored some kind of Road Safety Fair in the parking of Montgomery Wards (now Burlington Coat Factory) on McHenry Avenue. Officers set up a little mini-road system and we all had to try to cross the "street" as officers stood by with those little peddle cars, itching to mow down any kid who failed to look both ways. Apparently I failed to look both way and off to my side I heard an officer yell, "Bam! You're dead!" and proceed to lecture me that I didn't look his way. I felt like crying for I was official road kill. The humiliation impressed upon me a very real determination that I was always going to look every time I crossed a road on foot.
On the playground I learned the real-life limits of freedom of speech. Once all 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 but it was a remark the kid didn't think was nice so he grabbed my arm and sunk his long fingernails into my young skin and dug in like some wild little beast. I sat in silence as I bore my first battle scars. Hot tears of pain were streaming down my cheeks.
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. It made me all the wiser about the way to express my opinion - and withhold it at times.
The playground is the first place where I experienced the concept of the "love tap." 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 she mouthed the words I penned and then her little nose scrunched up with disapproval. An arrow pierced my heart. I learned two things in that moment: You don't always get what you want and sometimes people just don't live up the ideal image you had of them.
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.
Years later, I found myself running for a student commissioner position and encountered my first lessons of political reality. I nervously gave a speech, suggesting that my fellow students not vote for the most popular person but the one with the best ideas. I was ridiculed for the remark and my candidacy was sunk. (How dare I suggest that a popularity contest not be a popularity contest.) Life in real world politics is no different; Americans often pick their leaders based on popularity, looks and appeal rather than the ideas being espoused.
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 for a day when we didn't have to worry about being adults.
Kids know how to play, don't they?
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