Saturday, January 21, 2017

School, Part 2

I'm slowly writing an auto-biography. This is the third installment. The first two can be found here and here.


My most vivid memories of school have nothing to do with classes of course. Breaks between periods, which lasted from 5 to 20 minutes, were filled with running, fighting and games. At the beginning of a class we were often sweaty and red-faced, trying to catch our breaths, nauseous from exertion.

I was shorter, thinner, quicker and less powerful than the average kid, so I loved to play tag. Often, as we were running towards the end of a straight passage, with some kid's outstretched arm a few centimeters from my back, I just knew that I was going to gain some distance when I made a turn, because I always did, because I was just like that, and this big oaf behind me wasn't, and that I was going to get away. And this feeling gave me great joy.

The metal tubes which made up the framework of our classroom chairs were plugged with square pieces of plastic. We often took those out in order to play soccer with them. I was normally a goalkeeper. One day someone brought a big, ovoid piece of heavy metal, probably lead, to school, so that we could play with it instead. The challenge was to change this thing's trajectory without hitting it head on.

Our fighting did not look like boxing, wrestling or anything else that appears on TV. The goal was often to push your opponent in such a way that he'd trip over your extended foot and fall. Since both of you were trying to do this to each other at the same time, the fight tended to slowly revolve around a central point.

Sometimes we simulated mounted warfare by fighting in two-man teams. A lighter kid like me would climb on the back of a heavier one to grapple with his counterpart on the other team, trying to make him and his "mount" lose their balance and fall to the floor.

In the mornings we hung our coats and shoe bags in the big dressing room downstairs. There were no lockers, yet nothing was ever stolen. Of course bicycles were never stolen either, in spite of the total absence of bike locks. To avoid dragging dirt into classrooms we had to take off our winter boots in the dressing room and change into indoor shoes that we brought from home, hence the shoe bags.

In the early grades those bags were sometimes used as weapons, and my muscle memory still retains the movements necessary to swing one menacingly from its string.

Sometimes at the end of the day we chased each other around the dressing room, tripping over fallen coats, laughing and fighting. Someone once threw me at one of the windows there, breaking it with my back. I have a memory of going to a store with my parents to buy a replacement window for the school. That was the first time I saw a glass-cutting tool in action - an exciting thing for a little boy. But why were we buying the new window? He threw me! That part I already forgot.

When a teacher called in sick, we had the entire 45 minutes to ourselves. One typical thing to do in such a situation was to start throwing wet cloths at each other. Those were normally used to erase chalk from the blackboard. Repeated hits imparted our uniform and hair a specific smell that I still remember today.

Our math and science notebooks contained graph paper, which became an integral part of a very large number of strategy games. The one I liked the most was an adaptation of Go called Tochki (Dots). We often played it for hours on end, both during and after classes, filling both sides of an open notebook with our encirclements.

Tochki. This is a short game though.

There was a popular graph paper game dealing with naval warfare, in which you called out the chess-like coordinates of the squares you hit, and several graph paper games dealing with tank battles, but for some reason nothing relating to aerial or nuclear war.

In the early grades the game of "fantiki" was popular. You put a chewing gum wrapper on a desk, and then the other kid tried to overturn it by hitting, or nearly hitting it, with his hand. It was really the air flow created by the hand's movement that flipped it. If he succeeded, he won your wrapper, but then he had to put one of his own on the desk, so that you'd get a chance to win it. Kids had collections of these wrappers which they displayed in albums. Rare foreign ones were more valuable than the domestic kind.

There were lots of word games too of course: a Scrabble-like game for pen and paper, which I would guess is much older than Scrabble, "hangman", which was probably the inspiration for Wheel of Fortune type games worldwide, and many others. If I ever come across a history of children's pen-and-paper games, I'll definitely read it.

How do I feel about being a member of the last generation before the massive spread of computer games? I think it's great. I got to experience this very old bit of human culture right before it declined. And none of it was addictive. The only traces of it in my current life are pleasant memories.

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