Maybe it’s the rain and the fact that kids are now going back to school that got me thinking about the games we played as kids, specifically the games we had to play as part of our educational experience, like kickball. It took me years to suss out that kickball was really just baseball with a soccer ball, minus the bats and gloves, and by that time it didn’t matter because I was in college, but that’s another story. I’m pretty sure kickball was invented because grade school P.E. teachers got worried about their jobs when they saw how much exercise we got when we were just allowed to run like heathens and do stupid stuff like throw ourselves off the monkey bars, which in those days went up to at least twenty feet and just had hard gravel around the base. Survival of the fittest was the playground rule. Maybe kickball was invented to give the school nurse at least one day when she didn’t have to re-set a broken femur or put ice on a cracked skull. And kickball wasn’t the only structured playground recreation we had. I remember some really weird games like “the pawpaw patch”. One kid would be “lost” and the rest of us would have to find him or her by running around in a circle pretending to hold baskets and chanting, “pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in the basket,” because you don’t want to let a rescue mission interfere with your fruit harvest. At least I assumed it was fruit. I had no clue what a pawpaw was or why we had to pick them up. And if they were all over the ground like squash–although we never did play squash, which I think is like the kickball version of tennis–or watermelons or hobos I didn’t understand how somebody could get lost in the middle of a patch of them. Really all we had to do was stand off to the side and yell, “Hey, over here!” I would eventually figure out that a pawpaw was a papaya, but it still didn’t make sense because those grow on trees, not on the ground, and by that time it didn’t matter because I was in college.
The rainy day games were the worst, though. At least rescuing somebody incompetent enough to get lost in a pawpaw patch was exercise, but indoors our physical activity was severely constrained. So grownups pulled out stuff like “who can stay still the longest?” Or there was “Heads Up, Seven Up”, which I still hated even though it was at least more of a game with real rules. Seven kids would be picked to stand up at the front of the class. The rest of us would put our heads down and the seven would wander among us and tap seven different kids on the shoulder. Then they’d resume their positions at the front, someone would call out “Heads up, seven up” and those of us in our seats would look up, and those who’d been tapped would have to guess who tapped them. If a tappee correctly guessed the tapper he or she would take that kid’s place. The game would be over when we figured out this was a cheap way to keep us occupied so the teacher could sneak off for a drink and staged an outright rebellion, or it was time to go, whichever came first. If I was tapped to be a tapper I would, while tapping someone, whisper “The pearl is in the river” or leave them a note or something to give myself away. That way I could sit down again.
The worst, though, was “Simon Says”. The one advantage of “Simon Says” was that the teacher couldn’t sneak off for a drink but had to endure the boredom along with the rest of us, and was put in the even tougher position of having to think up things for Simon to say. And I always wanted to know who this Simon was anyway and why we should be listening to what he told our teacher, and, more importantly, whether we should tell someone our teacher was hearing voices. And sometimes we’d be told to do something without it being prefaced by “Simon says”. Most of the time that was automatic disqualification, but sometimes the teacher would forget. And there was always that one kid who couldn’t resist pointing it out: “You didn’t say ‘Simon says’!” Those kids are grown up now and working for the NSA. That makes me realize that I never appreciated the educational value of “Simon Says”. Really I resented games that tried to teach us because that seemed to go against the purpose of games. I thought games were supposed to be a break from learning, so even when the goal was to score points or the point was to score goals they should still be pointless. What I didn’t appreciate was the subtle subtext of “Simon Says”. It wasn’t teaching us anything practical. I’ve never had a boss set me to a task like compiling spreadsheets then fired me because they didn’t say “Simon says” first. Actually I’d kind of like to work for someone like that. Having a boss who hears voices could be interesting. Anyway I realize now that “Simon Says” was teaching us the most important lesson of all: question authority. Then again I was a child of the seventies, so pretty much everything was teaching me to question authority. It was a very confusing time because we were all being encouraged to be nonconformists, but how do you not conform when no one else is conforming either? And who was encouraging noncomformity in the first place? I suspect Simon was behind it.