I grew up in an age when playtime was a time for our parents to get rid of us so they could do whatever they needed to do without us underfoot. Our parents seldom monitored how we played together, and even in the school yards you rarely heard, “Play nice, children!”
Kids were scraped and scratched daily, and cuts were usually only treated if pus oozed. Our swings were wooden and dangerous; if we fell off the slide we’d land on dirt and get hurt; and if you made it out of childhood without something broken, you were lucky, bigger than everyone else, or weren’t playing hard enough.
You had to be tough to survive being a kid when I was a kid.
Our games were as tough as we were. When we played Red Rover, people ran fullspeed, with an aim of victory…or else. If we played Dodge Ball, we threw with all the power and precision of a Patriot Missile. Many a party was enlivened with mock Roman battle recreations, otherwise known as “Musical Chairs”.
Not with today’s kids, though. Playgrounds are strewn with shredded rubber, school yards are shadowed with liability law suits, and mothers and fathers hover over their precious dears, ready to throw themselves in the way if a stray comet happens to fall to the earth.
As for children indulging in rough ‘n tumble, I saw something on television a few days ago showing a bunch of first graders playing today’s version of Dodge Ball. Under the close supervision of the teacher, each kid would put the large, soft, squishy ball on the ground and then push it, ever so gently, across at the other side. From what I could see, the only kids who were hit were ones who put themselves in front of the ball; probably deliberately losing so they could go play computer games, instead.
I can just imagine how Musical Chairs are played now. First, there’s the polite version, whereby kids get goodies for Demonstrating Good Behavior:
“Oh, pardon me! Did you want this chair?”
“No, I couldn’t. You must take it.”
“I insist that you take it. You were here first.”
“No, seriously, I’m not tired. Please do take this chair.”
Or the more likely:
“That’s my chair!”
Now, I will say that today boys and girls are encouraged to play more together — sort of. This wasn’t the case back in my childhood, where girls weren’t encouraged to engage in tough, contact sports. Still, our play was just as aggressive, if less painful, physically. Each girl would gather her Barbies and meet with her friends to compare accessories, and who had the most dresses and shoes.
A popular ’sport’ if you want to call it that, for girls when I was growing up was “Best Friend”. In this game, you would get mad at your current best friend, and then go and be best friends with someone else. Next week, the newest pair of best friends would have a quarrel about something trivial, and the original best friends would either make up and become the ‘old’ best friends — or some new soul would be dragged into the mix. Usually someone who didn’t have a lot of friends, and would be grateful for the attention, even if only temporary.
(These mix-n-match girls, everyone’s favorite temporary best friend, are the ones that grow up to be CEOs of major corporations or Secretary of State. Nothing like childhood to toughen you up for future challenges.)
Of course, girls could indulge in ‘rough housing’ if we were tomboys, which I was. I hated dolls, loved to climb trees, and was incredibly scary at Dodge Ball; god help you if you were on the opposing side if we played Red Rover together.
As for King of the Mountain — well, to be politically correct for today’s youth, it should be Person of the Mountain. And the ‘mountain’ is really soft straw or pillows, not a ‘real’ hill. And you can’t do more than circle around each other until someone gets dizzy and falls down on their own.
Or do they hand out numbers, just like at the Deli?
“Number Six! Number Six! It’s your turn to be on top!”
No, back in my day, we were left alone; to indulge our little “lord of the flies” natural savageness as much as we could wish. Usually, doing so out of sight of adults, so as to avoid creating a spark fear in our parents that they may be raising the next Hitler or Atilla the Hun.
Now my generation is all ‘growed up’, and our legacy of uncontained aggressiveness shows up in the boardrooms of most major corporations, as well as in government and in the military. Some would say that it is this that feeds our continuously insatiable need to go ‘…fight someone in defense of (fill in the nation/religion/way of life of your choice)’.
It is true that my generation has grown up to be pugnacious, angry, defensive, aggressive, and even, unfortunately at times, intolerant. Yet, the same impulse that drives these ‘negative’ behaviors, is also the same impulse that led many to stand in determined isolation on top of a hill, even when faced with hordes of kids just as determined to throw down their mangled bodies. It can breed courage; it can breed change.
You can see this impulse in people around you, and perhaps even yourself. It’s based on knowing that no matter how high up you are, there’s still places higher; no matter how good you are, you can always do better; no matter what you’ve accomplished, you can always do more. It’s holding firm on our beliefs, and standing by what we see are our truths.
It is a restless impulse. It is a tenacious impulse. It is an insatiable impulse. And it can either create great good, or great harm, because it is nothing more than raw determination to be molded into whatever shape our beliefs and our truths and aspirations dictate.
Every person who becomes a leader of his or her people, whether dictator or saint, is a person who is standing on top of a mountain. Every person who creates great works of art, or great works of destruction, is a person who is standing on top of a mountain. Every person who is willing to die for their beliefs, is a person willing to kill for their beliefs, and is a person standing on top of a mountain.
I also remember back to my childhood at the end of the day, when our parents would call us home, dirty and battered and scratched and scrapped. False night would touch the sky around us, and we could barely see our own bruises much less the faces of our friends. Yet before we’d break up, we would turn, one last time, to look at the kid who held the top–holding it against all odds–as they stood dark against the sunset. Turn and look, with respect or despair, knowing that they held the hill not because they were necessarily the biggest or the meanest or the best; but because they wanted the top of the hill more than anyone else.