Creating a scraped knee-free childhood
By Doug McIntyre, Los Angeles Daily News
“Tag, you’re it!”
What kid hasn’t simultaneously relished and reviled the title, fleeting though it may be, of “it.”
Before we are “Mr.” or “Ms.,” “Sir” or “Senator,” we’re literally tagged “it” by our peers. Being “it” in a game of tag on a school playground instantly thrusts even the shyest wallflower into the brightest spotlight in all of kid-dom.
For those of you raised on another planet, here are the rules of tag. Someone is designated “it,” and that kid must tag another kid “it” to shake off the dreaded designation. It sounds simple enough, but kids can be harder to catch than the 6 a.m. shuttle to San Francisco when they’re trying to avoid the stigma of “it.”
“It” means a mad dash across the schoolyard, with hands wildly flailing left and right in a life-or-death bid to shed the onerous stigma by passing it on to someone — anyone — else.
Zigzagging to avoid the outstretched hands of the leperlike “it” child has been known to result in slips and falls, knee scraps, bruises, ripped clothing and even, God forbid!, cracked cellphone screens. And that’s why tag is now on the endangered species list of once common childhood practices like sandlot baseball and handwritten thank-you notes to Aunt Helen for the $10 Chipotle gift card. When children bleed, lawyers circle.
Gold Ridge Elementary School in Folsom, California, is the latest school to make national news when the principal, David Frankel, notified parents and students last week that he was banishing tag.
“Students were instructed that physical contact, including tag games, touch football, etc., were not allowed on the yard,” Frankel said.
Similar prohibitions have popped up from coast to coast, with school administrators banishing childhood staples like dodge ball and other rites of passage in an attempt to laminate the next generation from life’s sharp edges and insulate school districts from the tsunami of litigation that consumes billions of dollars in court settlements every year.
In my less litigious childhood, recess was a daily fight for survival. As a tow-headed tadpole at St. Aloysius School in New York, a three-story brick Catholic institution surrounded by a sea of asphalt, playtime was not for the faint of heart.
Our daily recreation included a game called “Kill the Man with the Ball,” an activity that makes tag seem like Zen meditation.
“KTMWTB” had, like tag, few actual rules. Some alpha dog would produce a pink rubber ball known as a “Spauldeen” at the start of recess and hurl it as high in the sky as possible. Inexplicably, the rest of us would leap and claw to catch it as if it were a sack of rice dropped from an aid helicopter. Whoever came down with the ball would then be chased across the schoolyard by the entire student body and pummeled with fists, feet and teeth until he/she relinquished the Spauldeen, instantly igniting a new cycle of violence. When the bell would finally ring, signaling the end of recess, the nuns would cart the dead and dying to the nurse’s office where, presumably, next of kin would come to collect the remains.
Of course, nobody actually died.
And nobody sued. Ever.
Our version of dodge ball was known as “Cannon Ball” and lived up to what its name implied: a chaotic firing squad of flying projectiles slamming into your head, stomach and more sensitive regions from point-blank range. With glasses and retainers flying, taking the occasional bicuspid with it, Cannon Ball was a weekly terror endured by millions of American children until the rise of the nanny state.
While the temptation is great to lord the rough and tumble recesses of my youth over today’s Pokémon-gathering Snowflakes, I am tempered by two realities; My father’s generation spent their school recesses drilling for World War II, and today’s kids often have to negotiate hostile gang turf just to get to and from school, fractured families, drugs, sexting and the occasional Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris or Adam Lanza intent on actual murder and mayhem, something unthinkable while I was dodging balls or trying to tag Mike Considine “it.”
Banning physical contact on the schoolyard might be an idiotic overreaction to life’s simplest challenges. But maybe we do these things because we have no idea how to protect our kids from so many of life’s actual traumas.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. Hear him weekdays, 5-10 a.m. on KABC AM (790). He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.