Saturday, November 10, 2012

Living In The Ideal World

That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. ~Hillel

I've enjoyed the Milton Bradley game of Twister, although not for a couple decades, but I save much fonder memories for the children's version, Animal Twister. When my siblings and I helped my parents clean out their attic a few years ago, I claimed our childhood edition of it, expecting to use it at school.

Unlike the adult version which is more about flexibility, leverage, strength, and, as we got to be teenagers, the vague sexual titillation of taut bodies and hot breath in close proximity, Animal Twister is a competitive free-for-all of the winner takes the prize variety. My brother and I sometimes played it as a two-person game, but it really was much more fun with groups of 4 or more. Everyone stood, spaced around the border, toes just barely off the edge of the vinyl mat, usually arguing about who was over the line, in tense anticipation. Instead of the spinner used in the adult version, Animal Twister uses a stack of cards featuring the blue or red silhouettes of cartoon animals that match the larger versions that appear on the mat.

The "caller" then, for instance, shouts out, "Lion! Foot!" or "Whale! Hand!" and everyone scrambles to be the first to accomplish that goal. Yes, what made it particularly fun with a large group was the pig pile that resulted from nearly every call. I don't recall ever knocking heads, but that seems like a logical risk, and one of the reasons it's taken me 3 years to finally introduce it to the kids: I just kept imagining two assertive kids diving headfirst across the mat, heads colliding with the sickening sound of a pair of under-ripe melons over the ostrich shape. 

Maybe I was just waiting for our new 5's class with their slightly better developed risk assessment capabilities, sense of self-preservation, and ability to empathize with others, but we finally played Animal Twister last week. I'd anticipated having to ultimately treat it like we do wrestling, with a list of safety rules, but decided to start off with no instructions other than to remove our shoes. I wanted to see if they, like we did as kids, would regulate themselves without relying on the crutch of rules or adult authority.

I've written before of my theory about rules: they exist as a last resort in human relations, a sign that we've failed so far to live together according to our commonly held ideals, so we make rules as a sort of external motivation, a reminder that we are not yet the people we wish to be. In the ideal world, one we may never attain, but toward which we should always strive, rules would be unnecessary because we have internalized how we ought to treat the other people. I wanted to try out Animal Twister with the assumption we could succeed as an ideal society.

This was one of several stations, so at any given moment it was a self-selected group of participants, usually no more than 4 at a time. It's definitely a "contact sport," something the children seemed to understand intuitively -- over three days only once did a child object, "He pushed me!" to which I replied, "Gentle pushing is part of the game," which seemed to satisfy everyone.

I think every child in the class gave it a go at one point or another. Some of them clearly were not as comfortable with the body contact or competition as others and moved on to other activities after only a few rounds. Others, however, like Rex and Elena, could not get enough of Animal Twister. The two of them spent the better part of 3 full hours over 3 days playing the game, developing their own competitive tactics. Rex found success in immediately putting his body in the center of the mat, taking up space with a wide stance, screening off large sections of turf like a basketball player vying for rebounding position. Elena chose to flit around the edges, looking for her target from outside the scrum, then darting in quickly with a foot or hand when she spotted her target. I played the role of referee, not telling them how to go about the game, but rather declaring a stop to each burst of action when I judged that someone had found the animal first: "Marit got it!" "William got it!"

When a child was "first" the reward was that they got to hold the card they'd won. I was particularly impressed with Rex's competitive spirit. He worked hard to win each round, but on several occasions when he felt I'd erred in his favor, he turned his card over to the rightful winner, saying, "You were first." 

In fact, that's what most impressed me about our Animal Twister sessions: the sportsmanship. Archie treated it as a joke when he repeatedly came up second best, saying, "Aw! I never get one!" laughing, then trying again and again, often finding the proper animal figure first, but using his hand instead of his foot and vice versa. He thought it was particularly funny on a couple of occasions when he discovered that he was actually sitting on the target and the others had to slide their hands or feet under him. When he finally did win a card, he clutched it in his fist like a thing of great value, occasionally missing a turn while peering at this hard fought prize. All the faces wore smiles, all the cheeks were flushed red, no one boasted about their successes, no one despaired over their failures. This was pure, on-the-edge, physical fun. We were successfully playing this rough and tumble game together according to our own, shared, internal rules. We were living in the ideal world.

At one point on our third day we wound up with 8 or 9 kids trying to play at once. This was too many and the pig piles too tempting, so we did wind up with a child in tears, although I think it was mostly out of anxiety at finding herself immobile at the bottom of the pile than from pain. Up to that point, however, we'd played this wild, competitive, full-body contact game without any rules beyond removing shoes, an incredible achievement, I think: nearly 3 full hours, a time during which we treated one another as we ourselves wish to be treated.

After the pig pile incident, there were a few more pig piles, but I said, "I don't want people just throwing their bodies in there. That's how people get hurt." It made me sad that from that moment on, after every scrum, one or two of them would look at me as if waiting for me to say they'd done it wrong. The ideal world was over, at least for some of them, as they were now anticipating external judgment about their behavior.

We'll give Animal Twister a break for a few weeks. I want the children to forget my intrusion into their ideal world.

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