Thursday, November 1, 2018


If you're an elementary-school kid who has happened upon Starknotes while conducting an internet search for Star Wars, you know that "recess" is a foreign concept in 21st-century schools. 

But it sure wasn't when I was a kid. I will now flee back to my own elementary-school days in Pinetta, FL, and, for your reading pleasure, share my memories of 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, for example, 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 tight little circle from which it was impossible to keep track of more than a quarter of us at a time. 

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.

We now know, of course, that it's pretty important that kids do tell their teachers when they see meanness or cruelty happening. Nothing weenie about it!

One of my lasting images from recess, by the way, was that dreadful moment 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.
The teachers watching over us.

(Which reminds me: I still haven't told you about Granddaddy's cows.)

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. Ask your mom or your dad about those books. If your mom doesn't know about them, send her to her room.

When the bell rang to start recess, we left our classrooms as one, either in an orderly file or like a startled flock of blackbirds lifting off from a pecan tree.

Once we were in the open air, we reenacted the creation of the universe according to the Big Bang theory: We turned into countless slivers of space stuff soaring out of the black-hole classroom, then gradually formed our own separate systems in the sprawling playground universe.

(You may want to draw that in order to better understand it.)

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 many 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 dropping off 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. I think the teachers made up that name to keep us from going down there while they were sitting in a circle.

Now and then, we liked to gaze at this forbidden ground, trying to understand such a thing, not feeling relief that the devil had died and was buried on the property of our very own school, but rather picturing the Evil One standing guard over this filthy hole, waiting with twitching tail for the first curious little punk to wander into the Forbidden Pit.

One day as we were walking away, Martha whispered to me, "That actually is the devil's graveyard. People have heard some really creepy noises coming from down there." As always, Martha was the queen of erasing doubt and replacing it with respect and/or fear of the unknown. I'm still not sure if she really believed it or just enjoyed scaring me.

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 gloomy request: "Okay, here are the rules. Listen carefully!"

Stay tuned for more memories of recess following these messages.

*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 "+" to yucky "-". 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 millionaire heading up a major corporation or the head of a math department at an Ivy League university!

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