The title of an article I read in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018, by Katherine Marsh, sets out its primary argument pretty clearly. “ We’ve so over-scheduled our kids that doctors are now prescribing playtime.” The article is subtitled “We idiotically insist that all of their activities be purposeful and structured.”
To give some perspective, an American who lived in Brussels for three years, contrasts her child’s school experience in Belgium and America. In the Brussels school, the kids had 50 minutes of recess every day plus a 20-minute mid-morning break. This time was unstructured, free play with minimal teacher supervision. In the Washington, D.C. school, the kids had just 20 minutes of recess. And some American schools only provide fifteen minutes.
By the time the kids get their coats on and get outside, there is almost no time left for relaxed, creative play.
The American Academy of Pediatricians seem so concerned about over structured kids, they released a report emphasizing the developmental importance of free, unsupervised play for kids. It stresses that growth and discovery are more likely to occur in kids when they are not being micro-managed.
The Academy went so far as to suggest that doctors write ‘prescriptions’ for playtime when they see young children during regular checkups.
American parents seem to think that every moment of a child’s life needs to be purposeful and educational. The reason for this may be that parents feel very competitive about their children because of anxiety over their offspring’s economic prospects when they grow up. American parents will apparently brag about their kindergarten child’s reading prowess but be unconcerned that the same child has no clue how to play with other kids, or by herself.
Of course, everyone wants their children to grow up to be motivated, purposeful, successful adults. But parents seem to have lost sight of the fact that to reach that goal, children need to play and imagine and invent activities on their own. That in itself helps kids grow and develop the skills and traits we want them to have. Not everything a child does has to directly lead to future skills or benefits.
“True play is freedom from purpose,” says Katherine Marsh. And this downtime is an important part of every child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.
This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.
I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.
I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal, Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.
All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.
McCarthy is news again because of the current White House occupant and his apparent fondness for McCarthy’s tactics.
I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The Black List.” I was still in grade school but a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines and the gold mine of books in our home library.
One of those books was “Not So Wild A Dream.” It was written by Eric Sevareid, a news commentator I listened to every evening on CBS Radio News. I loved Sevareid’s gritty voice talking about the evil in far-off places like Russia.
I was puzzled when Sevareid talked about how “we” were endangered by a politician named Joe McCarthy. I had seen the newspaper stories and headlines – famous actors and writers ‘outed’ as “Commies.” I asked my parents about it but they told me “no worries,” it didn’t involve people like us.
What did that mean? People like us?
I was fond of taking some of my grown-up books to school. I liked to show off the books I was reading. I was on first-hand terms with Sevareid, John Steinbeck, and the guy who wrote about “Crime and Punishment” in Russia.
While other kids bragged about their new cars, summer homes, and vacations in Florida, I only had books with which to earn bragging points. I didn’t always fully understand the books, but I liked how the words were put together. I enjoyed reading them aloud.
It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for words. The sound and feel of words. Words that you can sometimes stroke because they touch your heart in a special way.
All of this was the prologue to a nasty wake-up call for my youthful innocence.
We had an assignment in Composition Class. Probably the 4th or 5th grade. My heart was beating at double speed as I searched my treasure trove of books. I skipped past kid stuff like “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and my whole collection of baseball related material.
“Not So Wild A Dream” was the winner. I was just getting into some heady stuff by people named Odets, Miller, and Lardner. I liked what they said. I used to memorize sections to impress my Mom who was always proud of my ability to sound like a proper young man. I figured everyone would respect that ability.
I remember it was a warm spring day. I was wearing my new spring outfit — LONG pants, crisp white shirt, and shiny new shoes. I was brimming with confidence in Composition Class. When volunteers were asked to read their homework, my hand shot up faster than Big Don Newcombe’s fabled right arm.
My throat was dry but I plunged right in when I was selected. I read some passages from “Not So Wild A Dream” and a quote from Clifford Odets who was talking about social ills. I didn’t understand much of what I said but it sounded and felt good to me. I looked around.
Silence and a few nervous giggles. My teacher had a strange look on her face and stammered as she praised my work. She told me I probably would see the Principal later to discuss my impressive homework. I was beaming with pride!
The Principal seemed nervous as he talked to me. He hemmed and hawed. He even stammered. Where had I found the books I read? Who gave them to me? I proudly told him about our home library and the magazines we got every week. I remember the Principal’s eyes arching in surprise.
What was the big deal, I wondered.
All the joy of that morning came crashing down on me during lunch recess. The warm day meant we could open our lunch boxes outside in the play area. I was munching on my sandwich when I saw kids staring at me.
I began to pick up the words.
“He’s a pinko.”
“His parents are pinkos. I’m gonna tell my Mom. All his people are Commies, my Dad told me.”
The whispers grew louder. Finally, I was approached by a couple of the guys who used to pick on me because of the way I dressed, my glasses, and my stupid hearing aids which made me look a space villain. Oh, yeah, they also picked on me because I was the shortest kid in the class.
What now? Were they jealous of my composition? What the heck?
The biggest kid came right up to my face. He had bad breath and smelled worse. I don’t think he bathed often. I could see the red pimples sticking out on his face. “Hey, you four-eyed deaf midget nigg_r, so you’re a pinko too, huh?”
Pimple face leered at me, obviously daring me to get up and fight. I gulped hard.
His pal, beady-eyed, and sweating, taunted me, “I hear all you people are Commies. You don’t go to Church — you go to Commie meetings! All of YOU people. I’m gonna tell my Dad. You’re in big trouble, you lousy little pinko.”
My throat was dry and I was very scared. I couldn’t think. Then, the bell rang. Lunch was over. I was (literally) saved by the bell.
That evening, I recounted everything to my Mom and Dad. They listened without saying a word. Usually, they’d interrupt me, correct my language, diction or choice of words. When I’d finished, they looked at each other for a long time before speaking to me.
Mom and Dad were unusually patient in explaining things to me. I think I was a little put off by their civility. I tried to absorb what they said. It was hard.
I remember Mom telling me I’d have become more mature than my age. I was going to deal with more of these “things” as I grew up. She smiled wistfully as she tousled my hair.
And that’s how I started on the road to journalism. Suddenly, I understood something about the grown-up version of the truth.
It’s hard to grow up with the perception that you are different from everyone else, even if it is not really so. When you do not know much about the outside world, the world inside you can make you sad. “Why am I not like everyone else?” you may wonder.
“Why am I so different?” Thoughts like this can lead to sadness. Even though you try to act happy on the outside, your eyes might give you away.
“You with the sad eyes
Don’t be discouraged
Oh I realizeIt’s hard to take courage…”
There is no way to know that being different is not necessarily wrong when your emotions are telling you otherwise. Worse yet, other people are telling you that different is wrong, even if only in an indirect way.
“Cut it out.”
“Be a man.”
“Why can’t you be more like your brother, cousin, sister, uncle, ____(fill in the blank.)”
“Don’t you like sports?”
“Don’t be a sissy.”
“Only a queer would wear that shirt, pants, shoes, ____(fill in the blank).”
Some seem hard-wired to accept the criticism as they grow up. They look like everything just rolls right off of them. They smile while they hurt. You may think, “Every kid is teased as he grows up. It’s just part of life.” Yes, we all get teased, but some of us are different from the majority … and can’t cope with the teasing.
“In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small…”
With a limited view of the world, and lack of experience dealing with the emotions tossed your way, you can feel small, insignificant, different. And different seems bad when you are trying to find your way. What is inside you has dark colors and no glow.
“Dear god,” you may silently cry in the loneliness of a dark room just down the hall from the so-called regular people, “please make me like everyone else.” The prayer might be repeated until you are empty of tears, and they no longer wash down your face.
“But I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors and that’s why I love you…”
If you are different, but not in a bad or destructive way, you may need someone to reach out and tell you it’s all right. Someone, anyone, needs to explain that different can be okay. You don’t have to be like the majority. Each can possess unique characteristics that make them special, important, creative, fun. And everyone is worthy of love.
“So don’t be afraid to let them show: your true colors…”
Encouragement is needed to let friends, neighbors, and especially young ones know that each has his own gift. We can’t all be the same. We can’t all do the same things. There is nothing wrong with singing a different tune, being a different kind of person. Diversity can be strength. All the pieces can come together to form a perfect picture. When all the colors are put alongside each other, they can bring everyone joy.
“True colors are beautiful like a rainbow.”
If all this seems a bit cryptic, then let’s just say it is tough to grow up different and hiding who you are. The song “True Colors” has taken on a rather symbolic meaning in some circles since it was first recorded by Cyndi Lauper. Contrary to what some belief, it was not written by Lauper and was in fact the only song on her True Colors album she did not have a hand in writing. Nevertheless, it resonated with her and years later she co-founded the True Colors Fund to wipe out LGBT youth homelessness.
John Legend sings this for kids and teachers. You can find a Cyndi Lauper version here.
I was 16. Freshman college year. One boy, first time “doing it.” I think it was mutual. It certainly went on — against all odds — for about 20 years. It was very innocent in 1963. Less so with each passing year.
It’s funny, after so many years, how the details have disappeared. I remember that it happened, but I don’t remember what it was that was so obsessive, that had me in its clutches.
I only know it was a long time ago when all of me was young, healthy, and in a single piece with no replacement parts.
Obsession today is more like a worry I can’t get away from. Typically — these days it is something I know I need to do but don’t want to. Inevitably it has something to do with money. Everything else I can work through, but money is so inflexible.
I discovered this morning I’d been hacked on another credit card. I didn’t know about it, but I was having trouble using it and it appeared the address on the card was wrong.
How do they do that? How do they manage to change my address and get away with it? I suppose they guessed the 3-digit code. If they have a little program, it can probably run all possible 3-digit codes in a computer’s heartbeat.
Otherwise? People are a part of my life or not. If they bother me or get under my skin, I don’t deal with them.
I’m not sure who I was at 16. Not me. Someone else, inhabiting what was sort of my body – back then.
I always find myself defending school to kids. They complain it’s dull. That there’s nothing in it that “grabs” or fascinates them — and nothing they will find useful in life.
I find myself trying to explain that school wasn’t fascinating, but that many of the boring stuff you learn in it is indeed going to be useful. Like arithmetic, the ability to add and subtract mentally without a calculator or even a piece of paper and a pencil. The point of school wasn’t only to intrigue or titillate us but to make us ready to face the real world in which we all must live.
Some studies were dull, but you needed to know it because while there’s creativity, there is day-to-day life too and unless you are one of the entitled few, you will have to do your share of it.
I was the kid who had a book in my lap so when no one was looking, I would read. Although I love science today, in school, it wasn’t interesting. Maybe it was the teachers who were dull. In high school I had a double period of botany beginning at eight in the morning when I was already half asleep. The class went on for two hours. We had a teacher who knew her stuff, but talked in a monotone. She’d start to talk — and I’d black out. Gone.
I did not do well in that class. A pity because I was interested, but she was better than a sleeping pill. Twice as good, really. Nothing I ever took knocked me out as well as she did.
Social studies which would today be … what? Social science? History? Some weird version of both? It consisted of everything that wasn’t English, math, or science. What we called “the rest of the stuff.” I was a passionate, ardent, enthusiastic reader. I loved history and the world. But social studies? With those stupid work books where you would answer a question and then you had to color the pictures. Seriously? Color the pictures?
I flunked coloring.
English was dull, too. We had to read books that were of no interest to anyone. I suspected the teachers found them dull too, but it was in the curriculum and that’s what they were supposed to teach. They did. We yawned. I drew pictures of horses in my notebooks. Sometimes, when I got tired of horses — I never got the feet right — I moved into castles. I was better at castles.
If they let us write, I was good at that. But being good at it didn’t make it interesting. My summer vacation wasn’t the stuff to brighten my week.
The teachers droned on and on. Those of us who intended to go to college hung in there. It never — not once, not for a split second — crossed my mind that I should drop out and work at an entry-level jobs for the rest of my life because I was bored at school.
For me, going to college was exactly the same as going to heaven. I would go to college because I knew I could learn. I never doubted my ability to think. I was sure if I made it to college, the rest would follow. And so it did.
I learned a lot of things in college. Ultimately, the really interesting parts of my education were learned at work, when math, science, and statistics were relevant and meaningful.
When you are working, the things you learn are in a context. You discover science has a purpose. Numbers are not random shapes which you jiggle around until you get the answer or sit with empty eyes wondering what this is supposed to mean. I did stuff at work I had found impossible in a classroom.
It wasn’t my fault. It was their fault. They taught the material so poorly no one who didn’t have a special fervor for it figured it out. What a pity for everyone. Worst of all, they meant well. They genuinely did the best they knew how.
College had its share of drones and bores … but there were enough wonderful teachers — maybe a dozen — who were inspirational.
They were was enough. For each year of school, there was at least one or two teachers who made a difference in my life. Plus, I was in an environment where everyone wanted to learn. We needed to learn.
We chose it.
I have never properly explained the whole school thing to my kid or granddaughter. I told them “Oh, it’s not that bad.”
Except, it really can be that bad. Sometimes, it’s even worse and comes with boring teachers and brutal classmates. That is very bad. Whether they are teasing you because of your color or because you are smart and they aren’t … cruelty is cruelty and kids can be cruel.
The thing is, you don’t stay in school because it’s fun. Or because the quality of education is uplifting. You are there because you know that this is what you must do if you want to have a real life.
If you also get wonderful, inspiring, enlightening teachers, that’s better. But even if they are dull, you still need to be there.
School is the work of childhood. It’s the “why of the how” of growing up.
It’s not really a premonition when you know you’ve been busted. On camera. At that point, your “premonition that something unexpected and not good” is going to happen is more of a lurking fear.
Pictures of sneaky teenagers supposedly in school trying to disappear down by the dam. Will their premonition become reality? It all depends on the photographer. Lucky kids because — hey, it’s no skin off my nose. I’ve always thought every kid deserves at least some sneaking around time. It’s part of growing up.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know why I’m wasting both my time and yours. But, what the hell. As I’m writing this the news is still in full-time coverage of the latest mass shooting at a public school.
This time in Florida, not that it matters much. It could have been anywhere in the country. Hell, it has been anywhere in the country. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else. And of course, politicians, mostly Republicans, trotted out the same old crap. “Thoughts and prayers” and “now is not the time to talk about gun control”.
You know, the usual bullshit. One of Jimmy Kimmel’s writers posted all the Republican tweets next to the amount of money the NRA has given them. The average is around 3 million dollars. Except for Trump. They gave him 21 million. You can read it here.
I did notice one new thing this time. As the students were being led to safety by the police they all had their hands in the air.
Why? Well, they hadn’t caught the shooter yet and the police couldn’t trust anyone. There might be a second or third shooter amongst them. I thought the photo of the three-year-old girl practicing standing on the toilet seat because that’s what her preschool taught her to do “when the shooters come” was as sad as things could get. I was wrong.
When it was happening, the initial report was that one person was dead and 17 injured. Ellin’s first response was “Only one dead? That’s not so bad”. A few moments later she said “I can’t believe I just said that. I’m getting immune to this”. As it turned out, it wasn’t just one dead, it was all 17. Not the record, but the shooter sure gave it the old school try.
Instead I’m going to completely change the subject. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a true story. It happened to me when I was in first grade. I was 6 years old. It was 1957. I grew up in Schenectady, New York. I went to Lincoln Elementary School.
It was one block away from the original Freihofer’s Bakery.
The bakery was local back then. Today you can order their products on Amazon. Every day at 3 pm, I would leave school and be enveloped in the amazing smell of freshly baked bread. It was awesome. They had horse-drawn carriages that delivered their baked goods right to your door. The horse that came up my street every day was named Tony.
My Grandpa used to follow Tony up the street everyday and scoop up Tony’s “droppings”. He used them to fertilize a tiny tree he planted in our back yard. Today the tree is over 50 feet tall. It’s over 60 years old. Tony made good fertilizer.
We only had three TV channels back then. CBS, NBC and ABC. The NBC channel, WRGB, had a daily afternoon show called “Bread Time Stories”. But everybody called it “The Freddie Freihofer Show”. It starred Uncle Jim Fisk.
His sidekick was a puppet called Freddie Freihofer.
They played cartoons, had a band and the show had an audience of kids.
It was basically a rip off of The Howdy Doody show. But we didn’t know that. What made this show different was they also had “Birthday Boys and Birthday Girls”. They got to sit in the front row. They each had their own special birthday cake. A Freihofer’s cake, or course.
At the end of the show all the kids would line up in front of a big box with a handle on it. Like on a slot machine. Each kid would pull the handle and get a prize. Freihofer’s baked goods! (Duh) The show was just a big infomercial, but me and all my friends didn’t know that. You have to realize that Freihofer’s made some really good stuff. Their chocolate chip cookies were the best in the world. Their sugar donuts where amazing. At school, we had a scale of best to worst. Chocolate chip first, oatmeal raisin second, sugar donuts third and so on.
But the main part of the show, the most amazing part of the show was “The Squiggle”. You see, Uncle Jim was a genius. He would give a kid a big piece of white art paper and a magic marker.
The kid would then make a random squiggly line on the paper. Then Uncle Jim would make his magic. He would look at the squiggle and say “Wow, you just drew a bunny rabbit. He would then draw around the random line and PRESTO! A bunny rabbit!
Forget Picasso, DaVinci, Van Gogh. They were nothing compared to Uncle Jim! I found out later in life that it was something that pretty much any first year art student can do. But who cares? It was a Squiggle!
I tell you all this because I was actually on the Freddy Freihofer show! My friend was having a birthday and his Mom got him on the show. He could bring one friend. He picked me! I was an instant celebrity at Lincoln Elementary School! I was going to be on “The Freddie Freihofer Show!” I was going to get a Squiggle! And a prize! Cookies? Donuts? Who knew?
Kids were asking for my autograph!
So, the day finally came and reality set in. I didn’t know it then, but the universe was giving me a heads up on what my future career in TV would be like.
First, when I got there I was put up in the farthest back row of the peanut gallery. I wasn’t “a birthday boy”. I was basically an extra to fill a seat. Second, my friend’s Mom had to actually buy the Birthday cake. No freebies from Freihofer’s. Before the show started a producer came out and promised us that if Uncle Jim didn’t make us a Squiggle during the show, he would stay, and we would all get one after the show. Phew, I was worried for a while there.
So, the show started and out came Uncle Jim. Looking and acting much like my Dad and my Uncle Dick used to act on New Year’s Eve. We did the whole show, and of course, I didn’t get my Squiggle. I mean, I was up in the nose bleed section. But I wasn’t worried. The producer said we’d get one after the show. The show ended and we all lined up in front of the big prize machine to get our prize. They ran the credits over us. I was last in line. The credits ended before I got my turn. I then experienced what in the TV biz is called “a union shutdown.” That’s where 5 seconds after you go off the air, the crew shuts everything off and leaves the building immediately. Whoosh! Gone. Everybody. Including Uncle Jim.
So, there I was, standing in the dark, suddenly realizing I was not getting a Squiggle. But, it was OK. I mean, I still had my prize! By the time I got to the prize box I was all alone. In a dark TV studio. I pulled the handle. Oh, the suspense! I might not be able to bring a Squiggle to school, but I’d have my prize! What would I be sharing with my friends? Chocolate Chip cookies? Oatmeal Raisin? Hell, even sugar donuts would be OK. It seemed to take forever, but finally, out came my prize! And what was it?
A PACKAGE OF ENGLISH MUFFINS!
English Muffins!? Are you kidding me??? I have to go back to my school mates with no Squiggle and a package of friggin’ English Muffins. I say friggin’ because I’m sure if I said fucking English Muffins back then, my Mom would wash my mouth out with soap. It was a thing back then.
So, with my head down, I slowly walked out of the dark studio, back into the sunlight. A package of English muffins in one hand, and no Squiggle in the other.
But I still got to leave school every day to the smell of freshly baked bread. I never had to practice standing on a toilet seat. AndI never had to leave school with my hands over my head.
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