When I was a kid in 1960s New Jersey, we called it "boxball." Here in Maine - and perhaps elsewhere - it's called "foursquare." I have yet to see a schoolyard where it isn't played.
For the uninitiated, the game is simple. It requires the painted outline of a box on the ground, about eight feet on a side. The box is divided into four smaller squares. A child stands in each square. A ball is thrown in, and play begins.
The idea is to bounce-hit the ball into someone else's square. When that other person receives it, he or she quickly hits the ball into another player's square, and on and on, at a brisk pace, until someone either flubs the ball or knocks it out of bounds. Then that person leaves the game post-haste and the kid at the head of the ever-present waiting line jumps in to replace the ejected one.
When my teenage son Alyosha was little, he played foursquare in the schoolyard with a deliberation and verve that made it look like the most serious undertaking on earth. Foursquare was the center of the universe, the grammar-school kid's raison d'être, the cat's meow, the icing on the cake.
In a word, foursquare was it.
I can still see Alyosha standing fast within his quadrant, facing off against three other munchkins who were standing in theirs. Then there was the crowd of cheering onlookers and the line of replacement players, ready to jump in as soon as one of the active players lost his turn. The ball went around and around, back and forth, faster and faster as onlookers cried out, "Good shot!" "On the line!" "Keep playing!" "You're out!"
The thing that most struck me, as a parent observer of this serious business, was that the entire foursquare affair was self-regulating. Although the school had a cafeteria monitor, hallway monitors, and a playground monitor, when it came to foursquare, the kids themselves had everything under control.
There was good reason for this: The rules were so rigid, few, and clear that there was almost always consensus on the direction of play. If a kid bounced the ball just shy of the line and tried to play on, he was immediately beset by indignant cohorts, whose sheer force of judgment overwhelmed the infractor. What could he do but drag himself ignominiously to the end of the waiting line, salving his wound with the consideration that he would soon have another chance at foursquare glory?
Even though I grew up in the rough-and-tumble streets of urban New Jersey, our boxball was played nowhere as desperately as I've seen foursquare played here in Maine.
Once, when Alyosha was in fourth grade, I caught sight of him in the thick of a game. The look on his face! There he stood in his box, slightly hunched, hands at the ready, legs braced apart, reacting with lightning reflexes to every intrusion of the ball into his territory. I could only wonder at the nature of the allure.
I remember asking myself, "Is it really that satisfying?"
Within moments I had my answer. I don't know what possessed me, but when the next kid knocked the ball out of bounds I asked, "Can I play?"
Silence. And then acquiescence. "Go ahead," said one boy, and, after stripping off my jacket, I stepped into the vacated quarter with alacrity while Alyosha gazed at me with a mixture of awe and incredulity.
"Let's play," I said as the audience of half-pints pressed together, awash with curiosity.
Alyosha served the ball to me and I hit it back to him. Then he hit it elsewhere. It came back to me. I hit it to a little girl. And so on and so forth. Within a few minutes it was going pretty well and I was holding my own. Some of the kids even began cheering for me. Players came and went as they hit the ball out of bounds, stepped out of bounds themselves, or failed to return an incoming. But Alyosha and I stuck with the play until, finally, he slammed me a mean bounce, which I just managed to return. Or so I thought.
"Hit the line!" shouted a little boy from the sidelines.
His judgment was met with a groundswell of agreement. But I was sure I'd made a good pass. So I looked to my son, plaintively, for support.
"Alyosha?" I begged.
Alyosha shook his head and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "Sorry, Dad," he said. "You hit the line."
I was hustled from the arena without ceremony. No one congratulated me on the quality of my play. Heck, no one even looked at me. They were all watching the resumption of the game with the focus of lasers.
I was, in short, as memorable as yesterday's news.
Then the bell rang and the kids reluctantly abandoned the game as they scattered for their class groups. As I walked out of the schoolyard, Alyosha and I passed one another on opposite sides of the fence, but the moment was long enough for him to confide, "You really did hit the line, Dad."
He nodded. "Better luck next time." And then he disappeared into the school.
Next time. Was that an invitation, or was he just being kind?