Friday, June 02, 2006
Having a Field Day
Lately, I’ve been mulling over the phrase “to have a field day,” in part because I recently chaperoned a middle school field day event, and also because I’ve seen adults having field days all around us.
Let me start with the kids, though. My own memories of school “field days” from the Seventies are Kodak-clear. Let’s see: there’s me, falling across the finish line in the sack race, half laughing and half crying about being last and rubbed raw by burlap. And then there’s me with my pals, navigating the turbulent waters of girlfriendship as we pick partners for the three-legged race. And finally, there’s the anxious comparison of ribbons at the end of the dusty afternoon, the Colorado June sun frying our winter-tender necks and ears, as we tally up which class won the most blue, red, and green embossed sateen ribbons. It was an exciting close to the school year, and also one that reinforced all the written and unwritten rules about who were the winners and who were the losers.
In spite of these ambivalent memories, I agreed to be a parent helper for my daughter’s recent sixth-grade field day, but I swallowed hard as I signed the form. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pass myself off as an authority figure among middle-schoolers who are, mostly, louder and taller than I am. I entertained brief, paranoid fantasies in which I was overrun by hormone-addled tweens, who would leave no trace of me but shreds of my dorky Mom jeans and the fuzzy pompons from my footies. I am acutely aware that I am at the tipping point at which a visiting mother at school goes from being a goddess-like source of juicebox and cupcake abundance to being simply a source of acute embarrassment. It all happens in single syllable: the passage from “Mom” to “Mo–om!”
My fears only increased when I reached the school and discovered I was to be in charge of dodge ball. Oh. My. Lord. I’d read those news reports about dodge ball being the new Darwinian method of winnowing the weaklings, and I could already feel myself curling into a fetal position, hands cupped protectively around my glasses. But, you know? I got it all wrong.
Now, “having a field day” usually implies going wild and breaking the rules. Thomas Macaulay defined it as having a “clear field for moral experiments.” But at this recent field day, the kids, at least, still followed the rules. Another mother and myself headed to the caged tennis courts with a sad collection of end-of-the-year gym-class balls, followed by a noisy herd of most of the boys and a smattering of game girls. I expected chaos and rule-fudging, but instead, the kids knew the drill. They counted off teams, and divided themselves at my request uncomplainingly, like the Red Sea to my Moses. They even waited, fairly patiently, until an adult signaled the start of the game. I was agog at how orderly it all was. OK, there was the occasional nasty comment in the heat of the battle about who could or couldn’t aim, but I was astonished by the way the kids zipped to the sidelines when they were out, and filed back into the game in turn. If anyone hesitated before behaving fairly, the kid quickly got hassled back into line. I did, yes, hear a mild expletive or two when some of the kids were struck out, but every time the kids would duck their heads guiltily and check my reaction ... a clear sign they knew they’d crossed a line.
The big question, I suppose, was why was I so surprised? The only real misbehavior that afternoon was from the parents, who didn’t shush at the teachers’ command, and who snacked on the Doritos before the kids got a crack at them. I suppose we felt like the rules didn’t apply to us.
Sound familiar? I guess it’s because rule-breaking in the adult world is so routine, from running red lights to the bad behavior of ... gosh, where to start? Jack Abramoff, the CEOs at Tyco, WorldCom, and Enron ... No ducked heads and guilty looks have we gotten from the likes of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling after their field day with their employees’ money. Frankly, it was refreshing to be back in the school yard where shame and justice still exists. Yes, school’s just about out for summer, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget how having a field day can actually be a good thing.
Do you need more proof that the kids are all right? Listen to a song by a teen music group in South Bend called Slangbangerz. This one’s called “Philosophizzle,” and you can hear more at Slangbangerz.com.