Monday, June 05, 2017

Learning Nothing And Everything

As a child we spent our summers outdoors, mostly, with few plans. Or rather, that was the plan: going outside. From there, we followed our instincts. When I got older, there was baseball, but Little League didn't start until we were eight, so instead we just played outside.

This was a cul-de-sac street in a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina, so we were outside in the summer without shoes. The boys usually went without shirts as well, looking, we thought, like Tarzan. I remember all the names of the kids who lived on Wembley Street: Pheobe and John Azar, Johnny and Chuckie Beale, Lisa, Stevie and Angie Weibel, John Sain, Tom, Ruby, and Jeff Broome, Thomas Ballentine, Ralph Cozart. There were big kids as well, Ralph had a couple older brothers and there were a few teenagers, but they were, for our purposes, just smaller adults.

There were no fences between the yards and we roamed freely, walking in the grass because the pavement was too hot. Early in the summer, before our sole callouses formed, we would have to be wary of the "stickers," wild blackberry plants that would grow out of even the nicest lawns, but once we had toughened up the bottoms of our feet, even sharp gravel was tolerable.

One time we got into mom's sewing box and created what we called a "booby trap" at the bottom of our tree house ladder. We planted needles points up in the dust with the stated purpose of stopping bad guys who tried to climb up. Not once, not twice, but thrice, I forgot about the trap and pierced my own heel. My callouses were so thick that there was no pain and the needles slipped right out, something that impresses me to this day.

Sometimes we would play games with the hot pavement. Walking at a regular speed was impossible, but if you ran, it was tolerable. Wembley Street was particularly hot because the city had recently dug it up to install a new storm sewer, then repaved it with a strip of smooth, black, black asphalt. They had left strips of the old pavement along either side of the street and those remained noticeably cooler. When it rained, it usually poured, often with thunder and lightening. Typically, we would run into the nearest house or garage to wait it out, then reconvene outdoors on the steaming pavement, taking joy in the fact that now, until evaporation had completed its task, we could stand barefoot in the street without dancing.

The rain water would collect in the roadside gutters. Walking barefoot in those impromptu streams was how we commuted until they dried up, splashing and kicking the water the way kids always do, following it to the storm drain in front of the Weibel's house where it filled the newly installed pipes. We would float leaves and swings in the gutters, watching them until they fell into the abyss, Pooh Sticks that didn't survive to emerge on the other side.

One day, Jeff Broome, who was older than the rest of us and often used bad words, taught us a game that he called "Mumbley-Peg." In his version, two of us would stand facing one another with our legs apart, then we would throw a pocket knife (everyone had a pocket knife) to stick in the ground as close as possible to the other person's bare foot. In the actual game of Mumbley-Peg, you stick the knife into the ground near your own foot, which makes a lot more sense. I suppose we were lucky that none of us were impaled, but we played the game, cautiously, until Jeff left us to do big kid stuff, then we never played the game again. Although the experience did prompt us to wonder if it was possible to develop callouses on the tops of our feet for protection against knives, just in case this was a game we would be expected to play when we got older.

I knew everyone's parents, of course, but I don't recall them very clearly. They called us inside for lunches of sandwiches and potato chips, and then later we would be called in for dinner with the whole family sitting together over meat, bread, and two veggies. We were allowed to dine shoeless during the summer, but not during the rest of the year. Sometimes we had to go somewhere, like shoe shopping, but most of the time when mom had errands to run, she would just let us know she was leaving and to talk to Mrs. Beale if we needed anything.

We never needed anything, of course, because adults, like shoes, were not part of our summers. I have memories of kindergarten and first grade, of course, but none are as clear as those barefoot summers, when we were learning nothing and everything just by making a plan to go outside.

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1 comment:

Janney said...

Thank you for the share. Your post brings back great memories while making an excellent case for play based education. In my opinion, children will always learn better by experiencing things around them naturally and play based preschools offer them that very opportunity every time they step out.