Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Remembering Recess

"How can a bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?"
-- William  Blake, "The Schoolboy"

"He who romanticizes childhood was never a child."
-- Found scrawled on the men's room wall of a Shell station near Hahira, GA, 1964

If you're an elementary-school teacher or the parent of an elementary-school kid or even an elementary-school kid yourself who has happened upon this blog while conducting an internet search for Star Wars, you know that "recess" is a foreign concept in 21st-century schools. 

In many schools, recess isn't even a daily occurrence. When there is a recess, it is often nothing more than a brief 10-15 minutes of structured activity. Giving kids an hour a week of outdoor play time is considered a luxury.

The fools (no offense to fools) who create today's curricula want to be sure our kids do well on countless standardized tests and to be completely immersed into digitalized "learning." Playing in the sunshine is for when they get home, where they play such games as "stand over there and I'll text you from here" and "I'll play League of Legends and you play Call of Duty, and I'll text you when I'm done."

In an effort to keep from thinking about what this harnessing of young bodies and spirits is doing to the next generation, I'm going to flee back to my own elementary-school days in Pinetta, FL, and ponder recess in the 1950s.

Here's the short version: "Recess" was my favorite word.

Looking back, it seems to me our days were littered with recesses. Our buses tended to get to school early, so we had a mini-recess before our first class. We had an actual 30-minute mid-morning recess. We had roughly 15 free minutes after wolfing down our lunch.* Finally, we had another long recess near the end of the day. My memory believes it was longer than the morning one. 

All of these recesses were structured by nothing more specific than the laws of nature, e.g., we weren't allowed to evaporate or fly. Otherwise, we did what we wanted to do, which means the braver and more morally flexible did whatever they could get away with.

Sure, there were teachers there, usually four or five, but they sat in a circle from which it was impossible to monitor the behavior of more than a quarter of us. They sat and gossiped and snacked and perhaps graded a paper or two, just occasionally looking over their shoulders to be sure we weren't beating each other with bats or forcing one of the smaller kids to eat a live toad.

Once in a while, they would have to listen to some whiny tattletale claiming that Sheila shoved her out of her swing seat and then kicked dirt in her face, but tattlers were few and far between, because anyone who ratted to the teachers was considered the ultimate weenie or cry baby.

One of my lasting images from recess, by the way, was those dreadful moments when we saw the teachers slowly and awkwardly returning to their upright positions, looking for all the world -- except for their dresses -- as if they were my granddaddy's Jersey cows at the end of a cud-chewing session.But it wasn't their resemblance to cows that bothered me, it was the fact that recess was over.

So what was it like when roughly 100 elementary-school kids had all that free time under the north Florida sun?

It was somewhere between Lord of the Flies and The Secret Garden.

When the recess bell rang, we left our classrooms as one, either in an orderly file or a single pack or like a startled flock of blackbirds lifting off from a pecan tree like a pixelating cloud. But within seconds, even though we had never heard of Charles Darwin, we became tiny but glaring object lessons for his theory of evolution. 

Put another way, every recess we performed a minuscule reenactment of the Big Bang, countless slivers of space stuff soaring out of the black-hole classroom and gradually forming systems of their own on the spacious playground universe.

To put it at the most basic level, we did what kids do: We strove for pleasure while sorting things out.

We had plenty of room and diverse ways to do this. On the east side of campus there was a sandy basketball court (which also featured a tether-ball pole) then a small slope, then a horseshoe pit and merry-go-round (or "roundabout"), and farther east, tucked away in a shaded area, was a sizable swing set.

Beyond the swing set the terrain dipped again, slowly descending and evolving into a pine forest floored with decades of its dead needles, and in this forest, maybe 50 yards from the swings, was a partially filled-in sinkhole known as the Devil's Graveyard. My sister and I heard some parents calling it that during an after-school activity.

We all gazed toward this now forbidden ground, trying to fathom such a thing, not feeling relief about the devil's demise, but rather picturing the evil bastard standing guard over this filthy hole, waiting with twitching tail for the first curious little punk to wander off the school grounds.

As we walked away, my sister whispered to me, "That actually is his graveyard. People have heard some really creepy noises coming from down there." As always, Martha was the queen of erasing doubt and uncertainty, replacing those qualities with the proper respect and/or fear.

The south side of our playground was big enough for two softball fields, just a couple of poorly defined diamonds surrounded by Bahia grass. Plenty of room for us to work off any stress caused by remembering to carry the 1 in arithmetic or the correct way to write a capital Q in cursive.

So we daily whiled away those mostly happy hours not only choosing sides** for and playing "real" sports, but making up many contests of our own or revising old favorites: foxes and hounds, you're it, hide and seek, a pickup softball game called shove-up which would take me too long to explain, and random races organized usually by one of the alpha boys.

I can't stress this too much: No one told us what to play or how to play it. Perhaps this is one reason I still dread hearing this buzzkill: "Okay, here are the rules. Listen carefully!"

While we were doing as we wished, we bonded with our friends, made new friends, and purged old ones who were either redundant or outgrown. Yes, we bullied. We shamed and ostracized. We entered into the early stages of girlfriend-boyfriend acquisition. We got into fights. We helped joiners and loners define themselves as such. We formed groups, cliques, cadres, coteries, clans, packs, and pairs. 

I was bullied by a new kid named McIntosh. He would threaten me in class, then try to find me on the playground. For a while, he forced me into letting him copy off my spelling test. One day I thought it would be fun for me to misspell all my words, wait for McIntosh to turn in his test, then correct my own. 

It was fun, but when he found out, he confided in me that he was "gonna kick [my] scrawny ass during recess." Luckily, my friend Richard Williams kicked McIntosh's ass first, so if you're out there, Richard, thanks again.

And for my departed friend Tommy Ray Crews, may you rest in peace, thank you for doing it another time. To his friends, Tommy Ray was a muscle-packed gentle giant, but he had no problem dispensing a dose of violent justice in recess when the opportunity arose.

There were other fights, of course, but most ended quickly with one of us breaking them up. (When teachers broke up fights, they'd often make the combatants kiss each other in front of the class.)

Except for teaching each other dirty words and arguing over if a "cock" was a male or female body part, we were still too young to use recess for sexual naughtiness, but one day my friends and I did happen upon a couple of 10th-graders enjoying a heated make-out session. Apparently, they had both received permission to go the restroom, then stepped out the back door of the high-school*** building and got busy locking lips.

One little girl was so shocked she sprinted to the teachers' circle, crying out, "Natasha and Felix are lovin'! Natasha and Felix are lovin'!" (Not their real names.)

It was shocking to me, too. I'd never seen such a display of lust in movies or real life. It was too new to me to be arousing.

Where were we?

I was also not above stepping up the social ladder by stepping over a friend, i.e., by trading an old friend in for a more popular model with more extras, more prestige. Near the end of second grade, I felt my then best friend was holding me back from advancement, so I quit talking to him during recess. My abandonment left him completely friendless, so he used to stand alone under a massive sycamore tree, among its massive leaves, and he seemed to me to grow paler, and his dark eyes grew wider and darker the longer I ignored him.

This apparent deterioration only made me want to pick on him. This is how pecking orders are stabilized. 

Finally, he could take no more and he struck out at me, slugging me in the ribs with his soft fists, but my friends and I merely ridiculed his slugging technique and continued on our way. I eventually apologized to him (because my parents forced me to), but we were never close again.

We were no angels, just small human beings, and recess gave us the time and the big open space to prove it. 

And once our teachers rose up like cows, they herded us -- sweaty on hot days and our noses running and our faces pink on the cold ones -- back to the predictable order of our respective rooms.

So that was recess in my time. I have no hard evidence to prove that my generation's experience was more beneficial than today's, but my heart tells me it was. 

All the typical childhood cruelty chronicled above still goes on today, but it's done via social media, making it painfully public and permanent. And it's done inside, under artificial lighting and a climate-controlled atmosphere -- in more ways than one. 

And even the lousy athlete who trudges out to right field with his head down, knowing full well he stinks at sports and couldn't catch a ball if someone were to slam it into his glove, receives a trophy that lies about his gifts.

I'm not the old coot who claims all was better back in his day. I'll let you do that.

*On our way to returning our trays, we had to stop by the teachers' table and show them how much we had eaten. Sometimes they'd say, "I think you can do better than that," and send us back to eat some more. In first and second grade -- and perhaps beyond -- there was an "Eats Well" column on our report cards with marks ranging from "check +" to plain old "-". Luckily, our teachers usually neglected to check our milk cartons into which we often crammed our portion of canned turnip greens or spinach. Also, there was a kid who actually liked that stuff, and he'd give us his yeasty biscuit as payment for our disgusting greens.

**Who can forget the "unsafe environment" of choosing sides?! Talk about a shaming party! We mainly did this while playing a sort of fast-pitch version of softball. The last one chosen knew in advance he'd be banished to right field because right-handed hitters rarely sent the ball in that direction. 

But at some point, my friend Danny Buchanan taught me how to send outside pitches to right field (Hint: It also helps to swing late), and my batting average sky-rocketed. How I loved seeing the hapless non-athlete watching the ball roll between his legs or bounce off his chest as I rounded the bases! And how I resent the fact that he is now probably a CEO for a munitions manufacturer or the head of a math department at an Ivy League university!

***Pinetta only went to the 10th grade, but we called it Pinetta High School anyway, for the most part. Grades 1-6 were in one building, grades 7-10 in another, so we called the latter "high school." 


  1. You need to travel to Siberia With a View (you've promised, after all) and we'll enjoy my version of recess from noon to 11 p.m. each day. It's fun!

  2. Oh, we're coming. Mindy's pretty much done w/ our itinerary.