Back to School / Games (Little) People Play

It’s that time of year again (well, almost).

Here is a re-post of a few things from The Campblog recounting my school days and youth growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (started school in 1970).  From August 28, 2003, “Back to School”:

It’s getting near that time of year again.  I always liked school, but I especially loved going back to school.  I enjoyed it whether it was going to university, or high school, or elementary/junior high, but I guess I’m writing about elementary school here.

One reason for this was that I grew up in a neighbourhood that was somewhat remote from the school itself.  I had friends from school in that neighbourhood, as well as friends from other schools, but no one really from my grade that I hung out with in the summer time.  So, when September rolled around, it was great to go back and see everyone again.

Which teacher will you get?  Who will be in your class?  What kind of a class will it be?

Buying new school supplies was always neat.  New pencils.  New erasers.  Hilroy notebooks.  Just the simple, stapled kind.  But there was nothing better than starting out a fresh ‘scribbler’.  In certain grades, the teacher let you get those coil-bound scribblers, but some wouldn’t allow them.  I preferred the coil-bound ones, though.  New crayons!  And, wow!, those years when you were allowed to use coloured pencils!

I remember Grade 6 was the year our teacher made us use cartridge pens.  What a bloody mess.  All year.  Cartridge pens weren’t made for use by 12 year olds.

There was also some continuity there, as I attended ten grades at the same school, Primary to 9.  In Nova Scotia, kids start school at age 5 and go into Grade Primary.  Then it’s 1-6 in Elementary School, and 7-9 in Junior High.  (I know High School starts at Grade 9 in some provinces.)  Anyway, my school was P-9, so you saw a lot of the same kids and teachers, year after year after year.  The same school, the same school ground.

Except in 1974, our school, St. Agnes School on Mumford Road, burned to the ground.  I was in it when the fire started.  I was in Grade 3.  It was a freezing cold winter’s day, January or February.  If I recall, there were some workmen working with a blow torch in one of the washrooms and it caught fire, spreading quickly.  I remember the fire drill that brought us outside into the cold (without our coats or boots).  I remember watching the firetrucks arriving and the principal coming to the door, telling us to hurry back inside, to put on our coats and boots and go straight home.  Odd that they allowed us back in, but I suppose he had some idea of the spread of the fire.  Some kids were in gym and didn’t have time to get changed, and had to be rushed to a nearby church hall until they could be taken home or picked up by their folks.  I remember seeing the smoke rising into the sky that evening, and I went over to a friend’s place and we talked about the day’s excitement.

The school did burn to the ground.  I remember a fair bit of fuss being made afterward because a large statue of St. Agnes that stood in the main hall was basically undamaged, except for one hand, which was subsequently redone.  Was it a miracle?  It was something, anyway; something that just added to the story of the school burning down in the middle of a school day with not a single injury.

I remember over the next few weeks walking through the burned out rubble.  I think I even remember the smell.  A neighbour of ours found my brother’s school file, largely intact.  There really wasn’t much left, though.

While I wasn’t particularly frightened by the day’s events, I was concerned about where I’d have to go to school now.  I remember there was a lot of worry that the classes would have to be split up, but the school board kept us all together, housing us at different schools for the next year and a half of school.  St. Agnes was rebuilt and we started back there in September 1975.  Now, that was exciting; going back to the rebuilt school.

I can hear the crickets this evening.  Fall isn’t too far off.

There’s a football in the air 
Across a leaf-blown field

Funny.  I’ve noticed as late as last evening (August 25th, 2012), that I hadn’t yet heard any crickets.

And from August 29, 2003, “Games (Little) People Play”

My recent post regarding ‘back to school’ got me thinking about the old school ground, particularly, school yard games that we used to play.

I saw a piece on CBC tv a year or so ago about a teacher (in Dartmouth, I believe) who noticed that the kids weren’t playing any games.  They were just standing around.  So, she took it upon herself to teach them some good old-fashioned school yard games.  I forget, though, which ones she taught.

The one I remember most from elementary school was called Four Corners.  Part of the school yard was paved in large square concrete slabs.  The object of the game was to have your foot on one of the corners.  Five people played, four on each corner with one in the middle.  The people on the corners tried to change places, usually along the sides of the square but it was also possible to go diagonally across, if you could make it.  You’d generally grasp hands or wrists with another person from another corner and pull yourselves across to the new corner.  You scored “one” for every time you switched places.  The person in the middle would try to get his/her foot on one of the temporarily vacant corners during one of the switches.  If they did, then the person who wasn’t on a corner was now in the middle.  That was actually a fun game and I think it took up a lot of time during recess and before school/returning after lunch.  As these square concrete slabs were adjacent to one another, sometimes the game would be expanded to use two or even four of these squares.

Another game that took hold probably in later elementary grades was Chestnuts.  There are a lot of chestnut trees around Halifax.  (There are a lot of trees, period — it’s wonderful.)  So, every fall there would be lots of chestnuts on the ground.  You took a chestnut (the nut inside, not the prickly shell), dug/drilled a hole in the middle, and attached it to a length of thin rope or string, maybe a foot long.  The object of the game was to smash the other guy’s chestnut.  (Ouch!)  If I recall correctly, you got 3 tries.  Your opponent would hold his arm out, and dangle the rope/chestnut; you then had three tries to break your opponent’s chestnut.  Then he’d try to break yours and you’d keep going, each with 3 tries.  I’m right-handed, so I’d hold the rope in my right hand, and the chestnut in my left hand, then swing/fling down hard and try to make contact with the opposing chestnut.  Hopefully, it would break.  If it broke, your chestnut would score “one”.  Each time you were able to break another guy’s chestnut, you added one to your own chestnut’s score.  If your opponent’s chestnut already had built up it’s own score, by breaking his chestnut, you’d get all his built up points.  So, you’d get one for beating him, then if his chestnut had 10 points, then you’d already have 11.  It was the chestnut that built up the score, not the player.  I seem to recall that the smaller the chestnut, the more success you’d tend to have.  Some guys were using varnish or shellac or anything they could find to make their chestnut’s impervious to attack.  I’m sure there were guys who had chestnuts with scores into the hundreds; understandably, they were the main targets for all the young guns.  One game and you could get like 600 points!  I wonder who ended up winning.  Is there still some super-chestnut out there with wins in the millions??

Into junior high, a popular activity for some of us was using those little rubber ‘superballs‘ and firing them around the school yard.  There was a large outside brick wall of the gym was an excellent spot for bouncing the superballs off of (grammar!) …an excellent spot against which to bounce superballs.  There.  Not so much a game as a pastime, there be a dozen or more guys playing.  One would fire it against the wall, and whoever caught it on the way back of course threw it the next time.  Those little balls could really move.

(May 29, 2004)
I’ve been meaning to add a few more items to the (above) post from last year.  Alan had some followup, too (at the time).

Mike is at it again. Posting about things I wished I had thought of. His post about playground games reminds me of stickball.

This was played in one field in Kingston, Nova Scotia in the early-70’s behind Jeff Bond’s and Tony Smith’s houses. We were taught the rules by older kids who drifted out of the game when they were about 12. You were brought in the game when you hit around 9. The game was a variation of baseball with lots of cricket influence. You played with a broom handle and an india rubber ball. The ball was thrown at the batter who could hit it 360 degrees. Like cricket, there was no foul. The ball also had to bounce like cricket before the batter hit it. There were four bases around which you ran like in baseball. No one wore baseball gloves. At any time you could pick off a player by drilling the ball at them if they were not touching a base. If they were hit, they were out. I think there were three outs like baseball.

Anyone else have a local game?  I can think of “Red Rover” and “Redlight, Green Light” in the Queenston Drive Elementary schoolground at Erindale Woodlands of Mississauga in the late 60’s before we moved to NS when I was 7.  Also, king of games, “500 Up”which I played before I was ten until after I was 20.   The elemental “Tag” and “Hide and Seek” with its variant “Kick the Can” were also big in Kingston, N.S. during elementary school.

Anyway, these are more neighbourhood games, as opposed to schoolyard games.  The first is called Chase.  It’s sort of hybrid of capture the flag and hide’n’seek.  There are two teams, a team that runs off and hides and then the ‘chase’ team who tries to track the other team down.  The game was played over several blocks, in and out of any backyard to which you could gain access.  There was a homebase, usually Peter and Paul’s back step.  So, here goes:  one team has taken off.  The other follows.  You usually hunt in packs, to try to flush out someone from the other team and head him into a trap.  If you tag someone, they’re caught and have to head back to the homebase.  There, however, they can be set free by a teammate who runs to the homebase and tags them (I forget, it could be that you just had to touch the steps for everyone to go free).  So, once you had caught someone, you had to guard the homebase.  You could have someone sit right there, which would ward off any freeing attempt, or you could lurk nearby, out of sight of the prisoners who would give you away, and try to nab the prison breaker before he released the other prisoners.  This game was enjoyed for a summer or two, and was great fun; it lasted for hours, you were dead tired at the end of it, and was a good mix of exercise and strategy.

I can just imagine the gnashing of teeth that I’d be experiencing if neighbourhood kids were running through my yard the way we used to run through our old Halifax neighbourhood — belated apologies! 😎

Another game was Murderball.  No strategy to this game.  This had an even shorter run, but was played for a time.  It’s perhaps the final stage in the devolution (evolution?) of football via the Rugby School family tree.  This was a game of hitting, tackling and pain.  But you didn’t care.  You wanted the ball.  It started somehow, someone just grabbed the rugby ball and took off; usually played in someone’s backyard, so there was a finite playing field.  The others tried to tackle you to the ground and you just tried to avoid them.  Once tackled, you threw the ball up in the air and someone, possibly you, grabbed it and ran off with it again.

Aw, the street lights are on.  Crap.  Gotta go home.

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