BOSTON — A few years back, my son Andres found a set of jacks in the basement. He brought them to me and asked what they were. Although he was attending what I thought was a well-outfitted kindergarten, he'd never seen them before. Once I explained, both he and Gabriel, his seventh-grade brother, wanted to play. So we all sat on the floor in a circle and I laid out the rules.
"You throw the ball up, and while it's in the air, you pick up a jack and then catch the ball. "
"I have to pick it up before the ball comes down?" Gabriel asked.
"Well, you're allowed one bounce."
Andres tried once or twice but quickly lost interest - too much hand-eye coordination required. Gabriel, being well indoctrinated into the competitive sports ethic, wasn't about to give up.
To make sure he had enough time, Gabriel threw the ball up, which hit the ceiling, rebounding at a strange angle. He dove after it, scattering jacks across the floor and catching it on the second bounce.
"It's only supposed to bounce once, and you didn't pick up a jack," I said, trying not to sound smug.
He tried again. Analyzing his technique, I realized that he used too much body English. Little girls can play the game in a 12-inch square area without wrinkling their clothes or breaking a sweat.
WE worked on ball control: How to make the ball go straight up but no higher than your shoulder. We worked on how to catch the ball so it wouldn't bounce off the jacks in your hand. How to pick up the jacks with the ring and pinkie fingers and the side of the hand, thus leaving the thumb and first two fingers free to catch the ball. (If this sounds complicated, try reading any sports rule book.) We did onesies, twosies, threesies, working our way up to six.
"I never knew jacks was this hard," Gabriel said. Unlike the girls I remember playing with, he was sweating and grimy from sliding across the floor.
"You should try it in a dress. It's even tougher."
After about an hour, he was developing some skill.
Granted, I knew some third-graders who would blow right by him, but for a 13-year-old boy, his first time out, it was a respectable showing.
"With practice, you could be pretty good, Gabriel."
He gave me a cocky look.
"Next time some guy at school tries to push me around, I'll say: 'Oh yeah? You want to play jacks?' And then I'll wipe the floor with him."
It was a unique approach to the old "meet you after school" challenge. In fact, it might be just the type of program to institute in the schools to curb violence. Imagine the gym floor littered with circles of boys, baseball caps on backward, playing "in your face" jacks.
Boys would be lined up against the walls, waiting to play in. Adidas and Nike could start marketing $40 wrist supports for the hard-core jacks players. Traveling jacks teams could crisscross the country for championship meets. It could give a whole new meaning to the word "competition."
Just stay clear of those third-grade girls.