Friday, March 14, 2008

A Day of Four-Square

I'm about to go away for the weekend, so I'd better write something now or else I won't for a few days. I was about to shut down and go back to work (after my doctor's appointment) but I should hack out an entry for the sake of having written something.

Thinking back to Hulsing Elementary School, Canton, MI, circa 1982. Everyone else is out on the playground, running around, playing games, yelling, squabbling, socializing. I'm off to the side, sitting on a stoop, drawing. David G________ (I remember the names of all my tormentors; all the better to stalk them later in life and break their kneecaps in a parking ramp) and his band of cronies spots me: "There's Chris, drawin' his ass off. What are you drawing?" There was a time when I would have answered candidly, thinking I'm about to make a new friend. Experience has shown me, by this point, that he's not interested at all in what I'm drawing, he's looking for an opening for his group to make fun of me, maybe beat me up. Rather than look up, light up, and eagerly explain I'm illustrating a cosmic battle between alien fleets in the middle of an asteroid belt, I keep my eyes down and mutter that it's nothing. After a couple passes David realizes I'm not giving him an "in" and goes off in search of lamer prey, and then a group of girls noticed me.

Or maybe it's another day, and I'm playing with Micronauts in the dirt. I got these little toys for Christmas, tiny translucent action figures from a Dadaist movement, it seems like. They had silver heads, white hands and shoes (with spats), and colored bodies with a metallic chest plate. One was orange, another was yellow. Why? What did the colors signify? I couldn't discern anything about them from context: the chest plates could be swapped out, but why? If their heads were metal, why did they clearly sport a tidy conservative haircut, parted on the left? That's not futuristic or fantastic at all. Some adult gifted me with these Micronauts one Christmas, and I was immediately flummoxed. I'd never heard of them, never seen them in comics or a TV show (but I think they did appear in this media). They literally came out of nowhere for me and I was unsure what to do with them. But I was playing with one in the dirt when a group of girls noticed me.

Being such an awkward, antisocial figure, I triggered some maternal reflex in pre-teen girls. Once in a while their hearts would melt and they'd try to talk to me, find out what's wrong (as if the problem were ever simple enough to explain in a couple sentences). In this case, they invited me to play four-square with them as a gesture of charity; two years later, in middle school, things would turn around and they would be pretty damn far from any measure of charity, but I couldn't know that at the time. I was just excited to be included in a game and to interact with some cute girls.

I had played four-square in the past with boys. They were ruthless and highly skilled, and there was always a line of contenders waiting for their chance to work up to the first space. It's inconceivable to me that anyone might not know four-square but I'll explain: four boys stand within each space of a large circle drawn into quarters, and these spaces are numbered one through four. One is the top position and four is the entry point. When someone gets knocked out, they leave and everyone advances one space closer to one; new players enter the game on four.

The way you knock someone out is through a technique of agility, aggression, and deception. The players pass the ball between themselves at random. You toss the ball at someone else's space, it bounces once, and the person in that space catches the ball. We're talking about a red rubber kickball the size of a soccer ball, with a rough surface for grip. The receiving player can try to catch the ball before it bounces, but this is unlikely; the point is to catch it before it makes a second bounce. If you toss the ball at someone's space and it makes a fair bounce in their space and then a second bounce anywhere else, that player is out.

After this comes the details: rules may be established, such as banning high bounces, making the ball be passed clockwise, counterclockwise, or in numerical order (the numbers descend in a Z-pattern when viewed from above), etc. Really, this was open license to make up whatever the hell one wanted to. The end result was always the same: knock out the other players and stay in the one spot as long as possible. A few champions distinguished themselves as impossible to beat and spent their entire careers in the one position. After 15 minutes of play, the first two positions were fairly unchanging and kids could only hope to swap out three and four, get a couple minutes of game time before going to the back of the line again.

The girls weren't like this. They weren't as competitive as the boys. There was no line to join the game, and no one ever really got knocked out of the game. If someone scored against you, you just went "aww," remained in position, and play continued. This was actually more my speed: four-square with the guys stressed me out and cultivated tremendous self-hatred, at least for me. Other kids were anxious to dominate the other boys, but four-square represented yet another display of my inadequacy and inability to measure up to my peers. No wonder I chose to peel off to the side and draw pictures all recess long.

But playing with the girls was a delightful experience all the way around. Not only were they pretty and polite, they weren't as ruthless in their play and I could enjoy the sport for its own sake. I even taught them a couple tricks that the boys used, such as looking at one person and tossing the ball elsewhere. This had never occurred to the girls and they were delighted with the stunt: the one I looked at would tense with readiness, and someone else abruptly found a red ball bouncing out of their space: laughter all around. One girl practiced this technique on me for the rest of recess, she would lunge her face at me and toss the ball to the side. It was enchanting: her lips would part slightly with an unspoken "ha!" and her eyes would widen. Her irises were a luminous jade and truly lovely, so it was a little thrill to have her stare into mine so dramatically. Many times I felt I was not even in the game, just floating outside of my body and hovering right before her face. (This girl found me on a couple months ago and I tried to e-mail her but she has not responded.)

This only happened once, this playing with the girls. I wasn't invited back or the opportunity never arose, or the guys ridiculed me so badly that I had to lay especially low during lunches. I don't remember, and that's fine because I clearly remember my happiness during this rare instance. That's what I'd rather have cycling through my mind.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your childhood stories and am rather envious that you can recount so many details. I can barely remember the names of most people I went to school with.

Christian said...

The details only come up as I'm writing. I don't think I'm making anything up, but I know I have a better vocabulary with which to describe them now than I did even as I was experiencing them. But yeah, it's weird what my mind chooses to retain and what it glosses over.