There is an elementary school about a half-mile from my house in Vieques, and when the school year is in session, I can hear the distant playground sounds of the children.
Ever notice that playground noise sounds the same, whether the kids are speaking Spanish, English or Swahili?
It brings to mind the sounds of my own childhood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in the Fifties. Especially the rhythms and rhymes of the girls playing jump rope during recess.
Back in those fifth-grade days, I attended Shull School, a big, classically designed school set on a hill. On either side of the building were playgrounds, situated above sidewalk level. There was a playground for boys and another for girls, just as there were a boys’ entry door and staircase as well as a similar arrangement for the girls.
Now, each generation of little kids believes they are the first to think up novel ways to deceive teachers. In my case, I ran with a pack of little perverts who thought we were the first to notice that all the girls wore dresses or skirts and if we casually stood on the sidewalk below the girls’ playground, we could nonchalantly look up as the girls jumped rope -- and treat ourselves to a peek of gam or, if the gods were kind that day, a blur of underwear.
Skipping rope, for some reason, has always been done almost exclusively by girls. Maybe because girls are better than boys at displaying athletic poise while articulating memorized or spontaneous rhyming patterns. It could be two girls swinging the rope, for example, sometimes swinging two ropes simultaneously (as in the 1946 photo above), or even two girls in the middle, skipping in unison.
Over on the boys’ playground, meanwhile, we goonies just ran around chaotically or engaged in fistfights.
Where did the tradition of skipping rope to the cadences of rhythmic rhymes come from? I haven’t found any definitive answer. Girls make them up, it seems, and teach them to one another and to younger girls.
Girls and boys have their own parallel cultures and spread stories and rhymes and bits of nonsense to one another, passing them down to younger children and forgetting them as they grow up. There's a whole world of creativity going on underneath our noses, of which we adults are largely unaware, despite having participated in it ourselves at one time.
The rhythms we hear during recess do have effect, though, and affect our point of view. One folklorist theorizes that some girls’ rhymes hint at fears of puberty and the consequences of sex – in masked language:
Cinderella, dressed in yellow,
Climbed the stairs
To kiss a fellow.
Kissed a snake
How many doctors
Will it take?
Some rhymes might be nothing more than a clever way of being naughty --without rousing the ire of teachers and parents:
Miss Annie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Annie went to Heaven
The steamboat went to
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I'll kick your fat
There was a piece of glass
Mary sat upon it
And broke her big fat
Me no more questions
I'll tell you no more lies
Tell that to your mother
The day before she dies
One positive aspect of rhyming has been demonstrated conclusively: familiarity with rhymes is a strong foundation for reading literacy. Studies confirm that the better children are at detecting rhymes, the quicker and more successful they will be at learning to read, despite any differences in class background, general intelligence or memory ability.
Shouldn’t publishers of children’s books know this kind of thing? So why did Dr. Seuss – the father of rhymed stories for children -- suffer rejections by 27 publishers before his first book was printed?
In my next blog, “Once Upon a Time”