Friday, May 11, 2018

Cotton Ropes In A Bag

There were three thick white cotton ropes in a bag. A parent had asked me if I wanted them and I had said "Yes." They were in a bundle. At first we had no idea how many ropes there were. We wondered if it was one long rope or several smaller ones. It was all bound together with a piece of twine.

Normally, I would have just left it for the kids to find and figure out, but I was pretty sure that if I did that, it would all instantly become a permanent part of the "bad guy trap," a structure that has been under construction since the first couple months of the school year and that now incorporates about half the junk we keep on the junkyard playground. I didn't want this cool new thing to be sucked up before the rest of the kids had a chance to at least goof around with it. So I held the rope on my lap as the kids arrived on the playground.

"What's the rope, Teacher Tom?"

"It's rope for us to play with. I was wondering if anyone had any ideas what we could do with it?"

This was more or less the pattern as the children arrived. Most would put their hands on it, stroking it, handling an end. Very few ignored it altogether and most offered up ideas about what we could use it for, with an emphasis on "tying" up this or that.

Finally, one of them asked, "Can I have it?"

I answered, "I don't even know how many there are. It might be one long rope or it might be many."

"I think it's one long rope."

"Maybe, but I think it might be two or three ropes." I pointed out at least three rope-ends as my evidence.

"Can I have one?"

"Sure, but they're all tied up." I showed her the twine binding.

"You should saw it off."

"Yes, or I could cut it off."

"Cut it off! With scissors!"

I matched her enthusiasm, "Okay!" I then excused myself to retrieve a pair of scissors, leaving the rope in a pile on the table at the top of the hill. When I returned, children were gathered around the rope, touching it, tugging on it, talking about it. I snipped the twine.

A girl called out, "Let's see how long it is!" She grabbed an end and began pulling it down the hill. "Teacher Tom, grab the other end!" I took an end, although I could see at least three more ends so I had no idea whether or not we were holding the same rope. She pulled until all the ropes were in a snarl. I said, "They're tangled." She responded by dropping her end of the rope to tackle the task of "untying."

By now, other kids had found ends to hold, each pulling in different directions. There was a moment of tension as a knot began to form. It released suddenly, causing several of the children to fall over one another. Most of them laughed; some of them fussed. It was chaotic for a bit as at least a dozen kids took up a bit of rope as her or his own. It was hard not to be distracted by the few who shouted or cried, but I still managed to also hear the rest of the children scheming to cooperate, saying things like, "This one's ours, okay?" inviting and including one another. I heard them talking about being "teams." Some of the teams found themselves, quite by accident, working together, so they became larger teams. At some point we recognized that we had three thick ropes.

The girl who had wanted to measure the rope's length was frustrated. "Her" rope had been commandeered into a good-natured tug-o-war. A second rope was also in a tug-o-war. And as these things often happen, the third rope lay inert in the dust at my feet. I took it up, announcing, "I'm going to use this as a 'measuring rope'," including the pouting girl in my comment. She got my intention and we each took an end. Amidst the chaos we managed to stretch it out between us. It was a good 10 feet long, as were all three ropes.

One tug-o-war evolved into a running game with everyone cooperating to maneuver about the playground: around the windmill, up the concrete slide, down to the row boat. The other one appeared to take the form of a classic contest of strength, but upon study, I could see that it really wasn't. It was if the internal purpose of the game was to reach a kind of stasis where both sides sought to be able to lean into their pull. There were frequent shifts of allegiance, with children switching sides according to their whims. There were several "failed" efforts when they were disappointed to find that they were all pulling in the same direction, but as they played they figured out how to maintain tension in the rope, almost as if by pulling against one another they were pulling together. This process of balancing the system involved lots of laughter and shouting as did the rope game that continued to wind about the playground.

Throughout, the original measuring rope remained as a sort of "free" rope, left up by where I sat at the top of the hill. We measured with it. We held opposing ends and wiggled it. We tied it to things. It spent some time just lying on the ground, waiting for someone to pick it up. At one point I spotted it on the way to the "bad guy trap," a plan I headed off by saying, "I don't want that to become part of the bad guy trap."

"Why not?"

"Because it's a new thing that belongs to everybody and no body gets to play with the stuff in the bad guy trap."

He thought about this for a moment, then answered as if seeing my point, "That's where we hide stuff." He then decided to try swinging an end over his head, before leaving it for someone else.

Before long the ropes were everywhere, no longer the focus of attention, but simply part of the playground to pick up an play with for a time.

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