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The sound of a playground
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There's something very comforting about the sounds of a playground. That sound of hundreds of kids shouting, playing, talking into a distilled 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 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 the north part of Modesto. The playground was within earshot of our front door.

If you think about it, the world of the playground was not just a playground. It was where we all often learned the lessons of life.

It was on the playground when I 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 or conking his head on the monkey bars. Personally I learned that spinning yourself silly until you're dizzy is not a good way to pass the time. I did a face plant on the asphalt. To this day I have an aversion to the taste of grit.

The school playground is where I found out about the concept of popularity and what it felt like to be one of the last to be 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. But somehow being called a "brain" made me feel like an overdeveloped organ of gray matter; it just sounded freaky to me.

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. You see, the Modesto Police had some kind of Road Safety Fair in the parking of Montgomery Wards (now Burlington Coat Factory) on McHenry. The police 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. You guessed it. Apparently I failed to look both way and off to my side I heard an officer yell, "Bam!" and proceed to lecture me that I didn't look his way. I was official road kill and the humiliation impressed 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; only that he didn't think it was nice. He proceeded to grab my arm and sink all fingernails of both hands into my young skin and tear 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. 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 do 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 blonde. I watched as my note made its way across the room to her. I watched, with bated breath, as her mouth read the words 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.

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 carefree 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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