Woodland Elementary School: Playground Confidential

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Life was cheap in the Midwest, starting with elementary school.

Submitted: July 21, 2018

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Submitted: July 21, 2018





Woodland Elementary School came with its own proving ground, although outsiders often wrote it off as nothing more than a simple PLAYground. Those of us who ran through that unforgiving and cruel jungle know better. The playground at Woodland was actually a bit schizophrenic. There were sections designated as safe for grades K-3, then other areas deemed suitable. for the more discerning 4th grade crowd. This 38th parallel was never actually marked with a physical line on the asphalt or anything, but the younger kids instinctively knew when they were getting perilously close to crossing over it. It was Stow's version of a prison shock collar, only without the explosive charges. The K-3 crowd had to content themselves with games like hopscotch, which was barely a game in the first place, and the dreaded small swings. The teeter-totters were also divided between amateur and professional grade, although the one “game” that became universal was the sudden jump from the lower position, allowing gravity to take care of the victim in the higher position.


One popular playground game evolved from the innocent version we all played in the school's so-called multipurpose room. For a while, it was the gym for indoor PE classes, then it morphed into the lunchroom for meals, then became a gym again until the artistic urge took over and it became the auditorium for school talent shows or outside performances or whatever. While it was still a gym, however, we played the game known as dodge ball. Dodge ball was the straightforward version-- there's a ball, dodge it. There was a natural upper limit to how much pepper could be put on those odd rubber balls only sold to schools, apparently. Throw, dodge, retrieve, throw again, hit, leave. These were all graspable concepts to a 4th grader.


Somewhere along the way, dodge ball became fire ball. Fire ball was similar to dodge ball only in the sense that fast pitch baseball was similar to slow pitch softball. Fire ball was serious business, played by serious people. I remember one guy at Kimpton Middle School who could pick off any target of his choosing from across the entire gym floor. You could try to catch the ball, you could try to get out of the way, you could try to feign injury and leave, but Mark was eventually going to nail you with that fire ball. Death by round rubber was in the cards. Once Mark got through picking off most of the opposing team, one unfortunate survivor who spent the entire game hiding behind others would be the last one standing. The PE teacher would declare a free fire zone, meaning there were no more lines standing between competitors. Mark would stalk his prey for a few minutes, then deliver a crushing blow from three feet away. I think we ended up giving Mark both ears and the tail one time.


There was another game which was actually banned by the principal during my time at Woodland. Many of us can still remember the last words we heard before our collective lights went out: “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Mikey come over!”. Red Rover was definitely a team sport, with two lines of players facing each other from a distance. The idea was to link arms and form an impenetrable human chain. A captain would select a challenger from the other side and lead his or her team in the taunting chant “Red Rover, Red Rover, let (insert name here) come over!”. With that simple request, Inserted Name would try to break through the chain by any means necessary. If he or she was successful, a player would be sent back to the other side. If he or she could not break through, they became the newest link in that chain. This process of brute force elimination could stretch on for a while, I remember.


The Red Rover rot set in after more than a few Insert Names Here came on over as requested and failed miserably. Either they got clotheslined by the strongest links, or they inadvertently took out a few links of their own during an open field tackle situation. The Red Rover victim-to-champion ratio became far too lopsided for the principal's liking, so he sent out a general bulletin that our Red Rover playing days were over. I remember a few people were sorely disappointed that their best head-butting days were now behind them, but it was a banner day for Insert Names Here everywhere.


One afternoon at Woodland, I watched two of our janitors drill a hole in the playground blacktop. They installed a tall aluminum pole and anchored it into the ground with cement. One of the janitors attached a long string to a hook at the very top of the pole, then attached what appeared to be a volleyball to the other end of the string. Without much fanfare, the internationally ignored sport of tetherball had come to Stow. None of us knew exactly how the game was supposed to be played, but eventually the PE teacher did take us outside and explained the basic rules of tetherball. At long last, here was a game that made as little sense as possible and we actually stood in line waiting to play it. The best part was that helpless feeling at the very end as you watched your opponent wrap that ball around the pole at lightning speed.


One version of tetherball started out as a straight punch service, with the goal being to get past the other player and wrap the entire cord around the pole in a certain direction. This could be done through brute force or finesse, depending on the player's anger management skills. The other version called for the ball to swing slowly around the pole a few times in one player's direction, and then players could pounce on the ball at will. This was the version of tetherball that confused me the most. What other game on Earth started with one team watching helplessly as the other team loaded most of the bases? That three-turn advantage was devilishly hard to overcome, yet we would dutifully watch the ball wind around the pole like lemmings until that third spin. Tetherball was clearly a game sold to school administrators, not to the kids.


One “game” unique to Woodland was not really a game at all, but more of a dare. The back of the school's designated playground extended into a small woods. In order to keep students from wandering too far into those woods, rings were painted on several trees to serve as borders. The woods on one side of those border trees looked pretty much like the woods on the other side, but rules were rules. We were NOT to travel beyond those ringed trees, ever ever ever. Of course, there was no faster way to get some of us to disobey a school rule than by telling us not to do it.


By the time I was in 5th grade, the mythology of the Land Beyond The Painted Trees had become huge. There were stories of evil men who kidnapped trespassing children, who were of course never seen again. That was a good one for me-- I would sometimes even stand guard near the ringed trees and look for anyone even a little suspicious. There were also tales of bears or coyote packs hiding in those woods, just waiting for free kids meals. Perhaps the best deterrents were all of those apocryphal stories about the punishment that awaited anyone who was caught behind those trees. In the unspoken Woodland criminal codes, crossing over into the Forbidden Zone during school hours was at the top of the list. I knew a few people who paid dearly for that brief taste of life outside the compound. I found out later, however, that there was a nice little trail that ran through those woods, and it ended at one of the least scariest places in Stow-- the Stow-Kent Shopping Center. The school system spent years scaring us away from Kresge's department store and the A&P.


© Copyright 2019 Michael Pollick. All rights reserved.

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