Education cast in marbles

OUT of a class of 45 students (mostly business majors), I have only seven (five males, two females) who played marbles as kids. Is it any wonder today's young people have enormous obstacles in preparing for productive careers? In the old days kids used to learn microeconomics from playing marbles. They grew to appraise the different investments in immies, moonstones, marines, and cat eyes, to name but a few, and to know the right time for trading some of their stock for new or old products that were rising in value. Because the object of the game is to hit the most marbles out of a ring with a shooter, kids were exposed to strict rules that inculcated a sense of ethics: Smoothing (cleaning up the ground in front of the shooter) is not allowed, nor are histing and hunching. The former relates to a player raising his hand from the ground when shooting, the latter to moving the hand forward.

Marbles fostered the art of decisionmaking. The youngster had to decide whether he wanted to shoot cunny-thumb or knuckles-down. Cunny-thumb meant that the marble rested on the cuticle of the thumb in shooting, while knuckles-down would find the marble placed on the knuckle of the thumb with the forefinger as the pivot. Of course, the best players could use either method.

Because one had to hunker down to play the game, marbles built up muscles in the legs, tummy, and back. And a player couldn't let the knees touch the ground, mostly because his most important supervisor, his mother, found that the strategy ground in a ton of dirt.

Marbles had a way of building character. There were winning days and losing ones. I'll never forget how hard it was for me to hang up that losing marble bag at the end of a long day and to rethink all the strategies I had employed that left me on the short end. Or to get taken by some new kid on the block who acted dumb but had actually been a finalist in the National Marbles Tournament.

Most of all, marbles taught patience and perseverance: For every summer day when the game was played from dawn to dusk, every player knew that he had to just keep -- well -- rolling along. . . .

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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