Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I know how the white picket fence got there. It was left over from a kind of fairy garden I'd built for my own child in the back part of our yard, behind the giant cedars with unkept branches that hung to the ground making a rain proof house around their 3 massive trunks. I'd built her a tree house up in there from scraps of wood, the way a boy would, and encircled the garden behind it with these segments of fence.

And I even know how the fence got installed here at the top of the two tiered sand pit. When my daughter got too old for her fairy garden and it was just getting overgrown and a chore for me, I brought many of the parts in to the school. The fence parts have been used off and on for many things for the past couple years. On this day, Audrey and Ella's mom Jaimee brought them there from where they had been leaning against the proper fence, the one built so children don't fall down the embankment and onto the paved alleyway 20 feet below, back there behind the workbench.

The little yard they mark is an extension of the lilac house with the floor so steep no one wants to go in there for fear of tumbling down the hill below it, although some of the kids, when he wasn't there one day, told me it's "Max's house." But I've never seen anyone go in there, even Max. At most they stand there at the top of the slope, looking in, not daring it.

It's just a fence around a patch of sand and I have no idea what it means to the kids, or what they're doing when they play there together, ages and genders all mixed up without fighting or raising their voices. But they know, I suppose, and they're not telling unless I ask. And I haven't asked.

So it's a sort of secret I want them to keep among themselves because, I'm afraid, if they let me in on it I'll find a way to ruin it with all I already know about fences.

And I do know about fences -- at least a few things. When I was a boy in a Columbia, SC suburb of cul-de-sacs, first one, then another, and then the third of the neighbors built chain link fences around their backyards, effectively fencing in our own backyard, which my father had seen no need to fence. Before then, there had been a couple paths worn in the grass from where we kids would cut through on our way to somewhere else. With the fences there, we had to go all the way round via the streets to get to those places and we more or less quit going there, even on bikes because it involved riding them on Macon Street, which was "busy" with traffic which seemed like another kind of fence.

But this white picket fence doesn't seem to be a fence like that one, one that impedes and blocks. The children flow freely from side to side, wearing paths, then wiping them out with the scuffling of their shoes.

Robert Frost wrote a well-known poem called "The Mending Wall" in which he and a neighbor are working together, each from his own side, to repair the stone wall between their properties. The neighbor says, "Good fences make good neighbors." Frost wonders if that saying isn't just intended for neighbors who keep cows. He tells the neighbor, "My apple trees will never get across/And eat cones under his pines." And the neighbor replies, repeating words he'd learned from his father, "Good fences make good neighbors." 

But this fence at the top of the sand pit doesn't seem to be like that, either. There was some complaining when one of the youngest children kept knocking a section of it down as she passed from one side to the other, her legs too short to straddle over it cleanly. But then they realized they'd forgotten a gate. I think Frost's neighbor's father was wrong: it's gates that make good neighbors.

We all know the Woody Guthrie song, "This Land Is Your Land," the one that makes us proud to be Americans and of our democracy. But there's a verse in the original that's most often left out:

As I was walkin' -- I saw a sign there
And on that sign said -- no tress passin'
But on the other side . . . it didn't say nothin'
Now that side was made for you and me!

When I think of that song, I always remember that sign as a fence. But this fence we've made together up there to make a kind of yard for the lilac house has no signs on it. Both sides were made for you and me.

They played around that fence in the sand, together, apart, inside it, outside it. I don't want to know what it meant to them, if it meant anything.

But by the end, they were all outside it, leaving it empty except for the shovels as evidence that something had once gone on in there.

Down the hill a short ways, they started building first a dam . . .

. . . and then a tunnel . . .

. . . and then a bridge . . .

I know about dams, tunnels and bridges, but I don't even want to know what they know because I'm likely to ruin it for them.

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don't fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in.
~Cole Porter

That's what I know most about fences. I don't know what the children know. I don't want to know. But I can hope this is a part of it.                                                      

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Juliet Robertson said...

What an evocative post - thank you.

I point EY practitioners to garden and DIY centres to buy bordering rolls of bamboo or half cut logs. These are a little more flexible and bend around corners.

My favourite is flexible willow lattice that comes in 30cm widths - it's got a few nails in there but children don't mind this because it can be zig-zagged too.

Hope you are having a good summer. I'm looking forward to seeing my friends from Seattle who are visiting Scotland next week.

Betsy said...

Almost every post since your move has featured has featured photos from the new play yard. What a wonderful space--do you ever go indoors? I wouldn't!

Teacher Tom said...

@Betsy . . . Indeed we haven't used the inside part of the new school this summer, except for one little room where the kids can go, wash up and eat a snack. We're hoping to not have to go inside until September!

@Juliet . . . Thanks for the fence tips! Have fun with those Seattle-ites!

jenny @ let the children play said...

The more I see of your outdoor space Tom, the better it gets. What a magical place full of wonder and adventure - you've inspired me to go to the nursery and see if I can find some sections of garden edging (like Juliet suggested) to see what our kids do with them. This post struck a chord because the thing we try to do most at preschool at the moment is stay out of the kid's play - I tend to take over with all of my ideas and my adult point of view. When we leave the kids to it is when the magic really happens.

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