Aug '02 [Home]
The Girls of Summer: Their Games
When you finally reach the end of the grid, you turn around and come on home, picking up your stone on the way. If you are lucky and adroit, you get to toss that charmed rock into square two, and so on, until your stone hits the edge of the square, or until your foot smudges the line, or until you fall, or, best of all, until you hop the course perfectly.
When I was a kid, we played this game on the sidewalk in front of the school. If we didn't have chalk, which we most often did not have, we used a rough stone to lay out the grid. The wind blew at our skirts, cars rushed by on the highway, and we played on and on, forgetting that we were waiting for our parents to pick us up, hoping that they were late.
Odd that hopscotch is a girls' game: when it was originally invented, in ancient Britain, during the early Roman Empire, it was a military exercise. Those first gridded courts were long, sometimes more than a hundred feet, and the soldiers were required to complete them in full armor. On the sidelines, the soldiers' children watched, entranced by the spectacle of those giants leaping along, and they, in the style of children everywhere, mimicked the adults they loved. Hence the game we know so well, the game girls still play, was invented, and now it's rendered the world over, rarely by boys, an excellent amusement for showing off perfect coordination.
Another favorite summer diversion, come down from the 19th century, is jump, or skip rope, commonly played by at least three—a girl at either end of the long rope, and one in the middle; one, or both, of the middle player's feet landing between cycles of the constantly moving rope. If she misses, her feet tangle the rope, she stumbles, and her turn is over.
This game, far less competitive than hopscotch, at least individually, requires precision and teamwork; if one of the three falters, all are affected. But the best part of jump rope is the poetry of it—the prodigious nonsense rhymes:
I wish I had a nickel,
One of the most intriguing aspects of jumping rhymes is the social commentary. Many include, even among the jumping instructions, implied or stated violence and a decisive ending, the assumption being, perhaps, that if you get rid of the violence in words (always a girl's best friend), you don't have to hit or punch, and because the rhymes are funny and musical, you're safe from retribution. When you hear a jumping rhyme, you hear the story of the neighborhood:
Right right right in the middle of a
I love jump rope but was never very good at it. It's the kind of game that, done right as big city teams do it, is practically an Olympic sport, drawing oohs and aahs from spectators. I used to see the teams at Lincoln Center, in the middle of the miserably hot New York summer, exhibiting their marvelous moves. No small town girls I ever saw could compete with the speed and grace of those city kids. But that's true of small town adults, their slow talk, subtle aggressiveness disguised by a wave, a smile. Big city grown- ups, especially New York City's, lay it on, let you know where you stand, moving and talking a mile a minute.
In the city or the country, another favorite summer game of girls, this one requiring actual game pieces, and therefore, actually costing a little money, is jacks. What girl hasn't sat, cross-legged or on her knees, to play jacks? What girl hasn't willingly picked out bits of concrete and dirt from her calves and knees after a jacks game?
For "Ones," you scatter those oddly-shaped metal or plastic pieces over the sidewalk or playground dirt, in one elegant movement of one hand. You toss the one-inch ball, pick up one jack, then catch, after letting it bounce only once, the ball in the same hand, then move the jack to the other, and continue until all jacks have been caught up. That's the simple version.
There are many more: "Twos," "Eggs in the Basket," "Crack the Eggs," and others. Jacks is more than just a game; it's a gamble on dexterity, and it has many rules: You can't use the wrong hand to catch the ball, you can't fail to pick up the right number of pieces, you can't allow the ball or jacks to touch your body or clothes (called "clothes burn.").
Most jacks adversaries, when I played the game, carried their rubber balls and pieces in little pouches, tucked inside lunch boxes. Those drawstring bags were talisman pouches: The girl who won took away more than her playing pieces, more than the playground championship; she who managed to show off her skill to the other girls—and, by the way, to any boys who happened by. She not only ruled her little world, she won the admiration of those sporty boys who wouldn't be caught dead at that "girls'" game.
Girls' games teach the art of getting along, the art of winning without too much hubris, the sadness and brevity of losing. Happily, these days girls aren't restricted; they play and compete at everything—football, soccer, baseball, softball. They run the race with the boys, and they win as often as they lose, equals on the playing field, equals off, most of the time.
Illustration: © 2002 Bertha Rogers
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[For more on the whole galaxy of schoolyard and home pavement games, see streetplay.com. Eds.]