What became of recess?

Some 50 years ago I was an elementary school principal in western Henrico County. In those days, Short Pump was so rural that people made fun of it and considered it a suburb of Charlottesville.  A Richmond reporter, who was one of my PTA vice-presidents called me on a Saturday afternoon and asked, “What ever happened to recess?

When I was a boy, we had little recess and the whole school turned out on the playground about mid morning. At noon, we had big recess when we ate a sandwich which we’d brought, or we ran home about 6 blocks, ate, and ran back to play ball for 45 minutes.”

“It was the same for me,” I said. “Now we have a school cafeteria, or cafetorium, where meals are prepared according to federal standards and are sold or given away under their guidelines.”

He jokingly said, “Well, when do the bigger boys tell the younger ones about the mean old teachers they’re going to have the next year. I can hear one now saying ‘just wait until old Miss Smith gets hold of you next year!’”            

I came up hurriedly with, “On the school bus, I reckon.  We didn’t have them in my small town.”       

The reporter said, “When do the older boys pass on information that the schools now call family life education?”

“You got me on that. I guess they still talk about these things at Little League or Babe Ruth practice or in Boy Scout events.”

He said, “When we were boys, we always carried a knife. We were proud of our knives and spent a lot of time comparing them. We even played a game called ‘territory’ although the rules weren’t clear. One fellow would draw a rectangle on the ground and a line through the middle and stand on one side. Another boy would stand on the other side and throw his opened knife into the empty space. Then he would draw a line parallel to the blade and include that part of the big rectangle as part of his territory. The game would continue until there was no room for the loser to stand.

“Sounds like what we played,” I said. “But no knives at school these days.”

“What about marbles?”

“Too much grass,” I replied. “We’ve got to keep the grounds looking like those at a factory.”

“We used to play marbles in the spring. Some of my friends got real good and won all the marbles.”

“We played, too.” I said. “Some guys started bringing shoe boxes with a hole in the top just slightly larger than a marble. He gave anyone 5 marbles if they could drop one through the hole from eye-level. Those that missed were put in the box. The principal came out one day and said, ‘I’m shocked! Shocked to find gambling going on here.

It’s much like a lottery.’ That put an end to this game because neither the school nor the PTA nor the state benefited from the profits.”

“That reminds me,” he said. “We used to pitch pennies at a line. The closest penny owner collected all the others. This sort of combined entertainment with physical education.”

“We didn’t have physical education teachers,” I said. “A student used to carry the teacher’s chair, another carried the bat, and another the ball, and we played a version of softball. I think physical education was the most neglected part of our education.”

We continued to reminisce about the good old days and the fact that youngsters today don’t quite have the mix of ages at school that some of us had. “There were even times when two grade levels were taught in the same classroom,” he added.

I continued with, “We also played King-on-the-Mountain which was a contact sport enjoyed on a grassy and sometimes muddy slope. It was called off by that old principal.

We used to say ‘Old teachers lose their principles but old principals lose their faculties.’”

“What did the girls do?” he asked.

“I think they played jack rocks or skipped rope. The biggest change is that students have to be supervised all the time. Heaven forbid that a child would skin a knee or get blisters on the money bars, which we called a cat ladder, and no one was there to give first aid. We would all be in court.” 


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