Reclaiming a Simple Schoolyard Pleasure

In our neighborhood, the fluorescents of new sidewalk chalks make their debut with the first lime green of leaves. Artwork on sidewalks and the ladders of hopscotch grids color our comings and goings. Even the youngest children stake out their sections on driveways.

Jacks, too, have come back fluorescent. I see them in stores in bright purples, turquoise, and pink - glittering like jewels in clear plastic purses. The hopscotch seems eternal: always a favorite of schoolyards. But there was a time when jacks were hard to find, and my own children had not heard of them.

Once they came in gray metal in a drawstring pouch to carry at your wrist. I remember watching them scatter with bits of lint onto floors where my long stockings wore holes at the knees. In Wyoming we needed an indoor sport to replace hopscotch and jump rope - some way to winter gracefully, elevating skill through upsies and double upsies.

Like a passport to spring thaws, I carried the jacks to school along with coins for hot lunch. At recess, my protective hands absorbed stomps from boys who laughed, hearing jacks crunch under their heels. Saturdays I practiced for hours in our kitchen - the one warm room. I'd replace the jacks in their pouch only for "Let's Pretend," the radio show better than its bland sponsor, Cream of Wheat, Dad's mush.

When my now-grown daughter, Karen, was young, I searched the stores for jacks, hoping to introduce her to the same fascination and pride I took in learning "the basket," "around the world," and "the double bounce." Finally, I found a set in brittle plastic at Woolworth's, and gave them to her in shut-in January, on her eighth birthday. She opened them last, after electronic Simon and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Her nose wrinkled at me as she asked, "Mom, what in the world are these?"

Jacks season lasted longer in Wyoming than hopscotch. Our sidewalks being few, we played hopscotch on hard ground more than on cement, drawing our grids with sticks. Our skills in jacks thrived more, partly because of the long winters, partly due to few TVs and movie theatres, no electronic games. Just before school let out in May, we held an unofficial jacks tournament at our elementary school at recess and lunch hours.

Boys were excluded by their own choice; they vanished with scorn outdoors, but were always curious: "Who won?" No names went up in display cases with trophies, but each of us remembered our season champions, whose skills we'd try to match next year.

Not long ago, from my front yard, I heard two girls returning from school talking about getting through double upsies. Very young and very excited, they went inside where I imagined them practicing till dinner. I was pleasantly amazed, reassured by what I heard in their voices. Looking down the street at the frescoed blending of chalk artwork and hopscotch, I felt in-place, pleased with the small things memory selects to keep and with what comes back, eventually, to be passed on.

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