The importance of having fun

One of my favorite books of all time is entitled "How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen," by Russell Hoban (Atheneum, 1974). It is about recess. Sort of.

Tom lives with his spinster aunt, Ms. Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who disdains his propensity for "high and wobbly fooling around" and "low and muddy fooling around." Naturally, Tom is quite good at fooling around and can turn any found object into the inspiration for an elaborate game.

But when his auntie catches him, the consequence is severe: "learning off pages of the Nautical Almanac." It doesn't stop Tom. He has not an ounce of malevolence; he is simply "following his bliss."

Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen are sent for, to teach Tom a lesson. Can the Captain beat Tom at his own game? Though outnumbered, he is not outskilled. Tom whumps them at Womble, Muck, and Sneadball. When it comes to fooling around, Tom doesn't fool around.

Recess reminds me of Tom, and of a former teacher colleague. Every school culture has a way of arriving at its own games of eccentric ingenuity. Found objects in the environment - a set of steps, a stick, a trash can, a ball of any kind - are inspiration for play, for sport, and for the relationships they weave. And Ralph Wales, my colleague for nine years, is my archetype of the school-game inventor.

First there was Brolf. Ralph and his sixth-graders would tee off from their classroom porch using dilapidated brooms, the bristles wound with a regulation 36-inch length of duct tape, and deflated volleyballs. Had to be deflated. The "pin" was the willow tree down in the swamp by the studio, and a good Brolfer could make it in, say, eight strokes, weather permitting. Brolfers are undeterred by wind, snow, sleet, or rain.

Then came Brockey, a hybrid of equal parts brooms, hockey rules, and the circus, which often turned into low and muddy fooling around when the teams of six faced off in the spring muck to try to drive the lightweight six-inch plastic ball through the regulation clown-shoe goals. The teachers who played this every day with the eighth-graders often wore foul-weather gear; however, many a post-recess class was conducted with squelching feet.

When it came to plunger ball (plumber's helpers, softball, two toilets - tankless), the school headmaster had to draw the line. The parents conducting admissions tours were hard-pressed to explain away the toilet "goals" in front of the library. Headmasters are contractually obliged to be Wonkham-Strongs on occasion.

I am struck, each year, by the subtle shifts that take place on the playground. A new student joins the seventh grade and brings a new game or culture of play from another school. This year, crackerball is the new game of choice. Even the old standards, like football, are played with a new texture: 20 to 30 children per side, boys and girls playing together. The playground evolves. The presence of a jump-rope, Frisbee, or a Hacky Sack changes the nature of the opportunities, as does the willingness of a teacher or parent to join in the game.

The story of Tom is about us all: We need to fool around, to invent ingenious games, and to play out our relationships to responsibility and authority within the metaphor of sport. A wise middle-school consultant pointed out, at a recent convention, that fun is a basic human need - and characteristic of any highly evolved species.

Oh yes, the story ends with Tom advertising for a new aunt. He finds Bundle-Joy Cosy-Sweet, who loves children who fool around. Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong marries Captain Najork, who treasures her sense of order. The Najork-Wonkham-Strongs get custody of the hired sportsmen. All is right with the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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