Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Since this story got a fair amount of play (pun intended), I took the opportunity to interview one of the students from the school in question who just so happens to live at my house. He recently completed third grade, and informed me that to his knowledge tag was never banned completely, only forbidden on and around the playground equipment. On the blacktop and grass field it's still allowed, he says. [Caveat: Despite my source's proximity to the facts on the playground, it is with some hesitancy that I rely on him as an authoritative source, given that he has been known on more than one occasion to exhibit lack of awareness (or highly creative construction) of rules that are supposed to apply to him. Plus he really favors handball over tag. So much so that, if allowed, he would spend hours each day perfecting his killer "slicey."] He also reported that while it is an inevitable fact of life that certain participants in any given game of tag will be endowed with less celerity than others, in his experience there is usually a decent turnover rate with regard to "it" status. At the beginning of the game, this least-coveted of titles is assigned by means of the time honored "one potato" method performed on the feet of the participants, outstretched in a circle for this purpose. (I am informed that the correct term for this procedure is "shoemaker.") Anyone seeking to join the game after it has started is a "newcomer," and is required to assume "it" status as a condition of entry. I am also informed that one of the burdens of "it" status is a certain amount of taunting from those who are not "it," particularly those taking refuge in one of the areas designated as "safe." My source was unaware that this had proven inordinately traumatic for anyone, and while the aforementioned caveats still apply, I note for the record that he is far from being either the fastest or thickest-skinned student at Franklin.

My very tentative conclusions, based not only on this exhaustive field work but on my own personal experience with the administrators in question, are that the story has been rather blown out of proportion, that the safety issues referred to by the administrators most likely were the primary motivation for whatever rule was made, and that whatever mention may have been made of "self-esteem," we are probably not dealing in this instance with quite the virulent outbreak of PC excess some would imagine. (Not that such excesses do not exist, mind you.) As a matter of fact, I recall that tag got banned at my own junior high back in the early 80's, for the simple reason that certain boys (by whose behavior I of course was shocked—shocked!) were using it as a cover for the real purpose of pushing each other so as to result in "involuntary" physical contact with certain girls.

I also note that officious meddling in playground rules is hardly a recent phenomenon, hardly a symptom of Postmodern Ideological Wickedness. Though it may be a symptom of a broader, more insidious type of wickedness, the Dark Side to which PC ideology is merely the teachings of the Sith. Back when I was in fourth grade (those antediluvian days when there was only one Star Wars movie), we used to play a mean game of four square. Fast, fierce, competitive. I remember standing in line, steeling my nerves and summoning every ounce of grim determination my eight-year old soul could muster while awaiting my turn to occupy the entry square of the firing zone. To get in and stay in all recess took the kind of alertness, the kind of dexterity, the kind of intuition of which a Brad Friedel is made. You never knew which square someone would shoot the ball into, or what spin they would put on it. Sometimes they would aim for the center corner, so that the ball would just touch your square and then careen off to the side where you couldn't touch it before it bounced again. Sometimes they'd go long and rifle it back beside you so that even if you managed to make contact you'd send it flying off way out of bounds. If someone who had entered before you got out before you did, you advanced a square. And eventually, if you lasted long enough, you'd become the server. To make it to be server, even if only for a little while before being eliminated again, was an achievement. It made you feel that you'd earned your way into the big leagues. And as in all big leagues, there were rankings. There were even stats. Any kid at that end of the playground could have quantified the relative skills and weaknesses of each four square player just as though Topps had put out trading cards with each of our pictures. Just as my erstwhile interviewee can quantify the relative skills of all the handball players at Franklin now.

But then one day this glorious sport came to an end. They lined us all up outside for a school assembly at which the principal announced that henceforth anyone playing four square on the playground would be required to play according to new rules, what Justice Scalia might have referred to as "administration-approved Platonic four-square". The regulation ball would now be one of those big soft red monstrosities, not the smaller volleyball-sized sphere on which all technique was built. And they went further. Just to ensure that the game was denuded of all nuance, all skill, all possibility of stylistic differentiation, they decreed that the ball could only be struck with flat palms. Both simultaneously. No more English, no more trick serves, no room for cultivated ability at all. Charlie Brown, meet Harrison Bergeron. Apparently some kids had complained. Apparently some kids were upset that the game was too competitive, that they always got out as soon as they got in. I'd been there. I'd been frustrated. I'd gotten back in line and tried again. And slowly, painfully, I'd gotten better. I wasn't one of the best, not by a long shot. But I was in the rankings. I could usually advance a square or two before getting out. And once in a great while, I had earned a brief exhilarating tenure as server. Key word: earned. But then Equality intervened, and Achievement was banned. When it comes down to it, you really can't have both. And the key to your soul is which you'd rather see go.

But again, I'm not convinced that this is really what was going on at Franklin.

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