Thursday, January 26, 2012

a wintertime recess story.

Like most elementary school children, the highlight of my day was recess. Rain or shine, I was ready to bolt out of my seat as soon as the bell rang so I could get one of the good swings. We had a decent playground: there was a tornado slide, a roller slide, tire swings, see-saws, a jungle gym, and a sandbox. We had tether ball and four-square, and there was even a basketball court towards the edge of the playground. It was pretty sweet.

If you’ve ever lived in the Midwest, you know that most of the school year is spent underneath a covering of snow. In South Dakota, the snow generally starts in late October and stubbornly hangs around until early April. Therefore, you learn at a young age to just deal with the cold and the snow. If you can’t, then you’re going to lose out on six months of recess fun. Even if it WAS deathly cold, no one wanted to be that kid.

Once in a great while, the school officials would deem it too cold for us to have recess outside. That meant indoor recess, which was just about as much fun as it sounds. Indoor recess was in one of the two gyms, and the only real option for entertainment was the big box of tangled jump ropes. Some children opted to just run laps around the gym. My friends and I generally claimed a corner and created wishlists from the newest Scholastic Book Order.

Most of the time, though, our recesses were outdoors. The very best winter recesses were the ones right after the parking lot had been plowed. That meant one thing: the snow pile. The snow pile was exactly what it sounds like: a huge pile of snow. The snowplows would just heap all the parking lot snow into a mountain of rock-hard snowy-icy stuff. When the recess bell rang on the day after a snowstorm, it was a mad race to get out the door and to claim a good spot on the snowpile. The fastest kid up the snowpile got to sit at the top, which essentially made you king of the playground. Everyone who didn’t make it to the peak would stake claims on various spots down the hill. Some would create little forts on the side of the snow mountain while others would begin tunneling. Others would smooth out strips from the very top to the very bottom to create icy snow-slides of death. The possibilities were endless on the snowpile.

Ah, but woe to the child who left their snowpants at home on that first glorious day of the snowpile! Our principal at the time was a hellbeast, and you did NOT want to be on the receiving end of her wrath, believe you me. This particular principal would not let allow child go out to play in the snow unless they fulfilled her winter apparel checklist: snowpants, snowboots, hat/earwarmer, gloves/mittens, and big poofy winter coat. Her rules were iron-clad. If your glove had so much as a hole in the finger, the principal nixed your time in the snow. Maybe she was just trying to protect our tiny hands from frostbite, but I’m pretty sure she did because she liked to see us suffer.

You’re probably wondering what the big deal is about not getting to run amok on the snowpile. If it’s -5˚, who wouldn’t want to be inside reading a book instead? Honestly, if that had been the way of it, I probably would’ve intentionally left my snowboots sitting at home if it meant I got to stay inside during the more frigid winter days. But, my friends, it wasn’t that easy. If I left my snowpants at home one day, it wasn’t just that I didn’t get to play in the snow with my friends. All of us shameful winter clothes-less children would not, in fact, stay indoors for recess. We were required to endure the shame that was known as The Wall.

Our elementary school was situated on a hill that overlooked the playground, and you’d have to scamper down a long flight of steps in order to hit the pavement and be on your way to the snowpile. However, if you didn’t have all your winter attire, you would be forced to stand by the walls of the building and watch all your friends have a great time without you. Yes: punishment for forgetting an item of winter clothing was that the teachers would freeze you into submission. At The Wall, you couldn’t even run around or do jumping jacks to keep yourself warm. The Wall was patrolled by one of the principal’s minions, and she was more than happy to tell us to hold still and be quiet. When you had the misfortune of standing by The Wall, talking was even discouraged. If the monitor decided that you were being too unruly, you had to put your nose to the brick wall. You couldn’t even watch what was happening on the playground; you just had to stand there, shivering, and curse yourself for forgetting your mittens that day.

I didn’t forget my outdoor gear more than once per season thanks to this system of emotional torture. But even if you had enough foresight to remember all your garb, there was still the issue of getting all on and still making it outside in time for all the good places on the snowhill. I was so jealous of my friend Allison, who was the proud owner of a bright red snowsuit. 
Unlike poor Randy here, Allison didn't
have any trouble putting her arms down.
I was stuck with the more time-consuming separates: first the coverall-type snowpants, then the winter jacket. Meanwhile, Allison was already out the door because her all-in-one snowsuit saved her some precious time. As time went on, I developed some kind of system for getting my snow clothes on in the fastest way possible. I probably had my snowpants standing up so I could leap into them, just like a fireman. Maybe.

Yes, recess was easily the most important part of the day, especially in the winter. I once turned down the option to retake a failed math test because it would mean I’d have to stay inside for recess. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but I was a little nerd, and that was the only test I have ever failed (true story). I was in second grade, and my teacher offered to let me retake the test over recess that day. I politely declined: it was one of the first days of the snowhill, after all, and I couldn’t risk losing the best claim on the snow mountain.

As I got older, my recesses started disappearing. We went from three recesses in kindergarten to one lone recess in sixth grade. By the time we had reached the end of elementary school, though, recess had lost its charm. The playground was overrun with small, screaming children; recess was much more fun when YOU were the small, screaming child. When junior high hit, recess was no more. Not too many of us minded. We were too cool for recess, after all.

High school, of course, had no recess. In college, if you planned your classes carefully, you could create your own recess! When I was a freshman, I actually switched psychology classes so I could hang out with my floormates and watch Full House on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons.
Intro to Psychology was no match
for John Stamos.
Now that I have joined the working world, I think we could use recesses again. Sure, there are coffee breaks and lunch breaks, but no one encourages us to run around outside and get some fresh air. After all, our parking lot has just been plowed, and there’s a big snowpile outside with my name on it. 

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