I’m up visiting my parents in Yorkshire again, wearing layers of fleece and nosing through the bookshelves. Dad’s a science fiction buff, but Mum’s background is in gifted education – particularly the kind of progressive, child-led, creative stuff that I am interested in. When I first started reading books about childhood, she’d almost invariably have a copy already on the shelves, carefully labelled in her maiden name and with thoughtful notes in the margins.
The Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder, even Summerhill: For and Against – all of these sitting there among many others, a quiet inheritance of words that she’d stored up over time, and the background of how she’d chosen to mother me. An incredible gift, in many different ways.
There’s also a selection of novels that are in some way ‘true’ to childhood – or at least, resonant with recent and distantly former children. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a copy of I Capture the Castle that I added to the shelves last year as a Chanukah present.
I’ve been reading Tree this visit, for the first time in years. There’s so many quotes to pull about children’s street play, about the complex social negotiations of stoops and schoolyard recess, about the fears and perceptions and experiences of those who are small.
“So in the warm summer days the lonesome child sat on her stoop and pretended disdain for the group of children playing on the sidewalk. Francie played with imaginary companions and made believe that they were better than real children. But all the while her heart beat in rhythm to the poignant sadness of the song the children sang while walking around in a ring with hands joined.”
It reminded me of a time when I was playworking at a school during break time. Some of the girls were showing me one of their rhyming games, while two girls too young to be allowed in were watching from the sidelines, then practicing quietly on their own. One was exactly the same as I’d played, beginning:Cinderella, dressed in yella Went upstairs to kiss a fella Made a mistake and Kissed a snake How many doctors did it take? One, two…..
And another one, simple in words but requiring fast and nimble slapwork, going faster and faster until their hands blurred.Double double this this Double double that that Double this Double that Double double this that
The social echelons of rhyming games became clear, as girls who knew the most games, were quick and proficient enough to master them, gained in social status accordingly. They sometimes bent down to play with a younger girl, laughing and turning away as soon as they made a mistake. Two sisters had developed their own fast-paced version, complete with kicks. More than most games, clapping games require a common language of rules, gestures and rhythms. They incorporate the sharing and celebrating of ability, skills and secret knowledge.
That’s part of why two of the girls conferred with one another, then pulled me aside to teach me a special one. It went:My boyfriend gave me an apple My boyfriend gave me a pear My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips And threw me down the stairs I gave him back his apple I gave him back his pear I gave him back his kiss on the lips And threw him down the stairs My boyfriend took me to the cinema To see a dirty film When I wasn’t looking He kissed another girl I took him to the sweetshop And bought a pack of gum And when he wasn’t looking I stuck it up his bum
“Everyone knows that one,” one of the girls said. She whispered it though, and checked first over her shoulder and mine, to make sure the male Teaching Assistant had turned his back for the moment.