I recently took my teenage son and one of his friends to the local tennis courts. Even though tennis is known as a "gentleman's game," tempers can still flare, even when John McEnroe is not involved. Two 14-year-olds will do nicely.
The dispute was over whether the ball was "in" or "out" of bounds. I looked on, quietly, as Anton and his pal Jeff went at it, yelling across the net in turn, as if the dispute, and not the ball, were the thing being played.
I'd finally had enough. I got up, pulled the boys together, and suggested we "choose it out." They both looked at me as if I'd spoken Martian. "Yes," I repeated. "We'll choose." And then I reached back and hauled something out of the attic of my childhood recollections: the most potent tool of conflict resolution available to a kid on the streets of 1960s New Jersey – Ink-a-dink.
"Ink-a-dink, a bottle of ink," I recited as I pointed back and forth between the two boys, "the cork fell out, and you stink."
The "stink" fell on my son, but before he could protest, my finger had moved on. "Not because you're dirty..."
The "dirty" finger went to Jeff.
"Not because you're clean..."
My son beamed at being designated "clean."
"Just because you kissed a girl..."
Both boys smiled.
"Behind a magazine."
"Ha!" proclaimed my son, because my finger had come to rest on him. But not so fast – there was more to the rhyme.
"My mother says to pick the very best one..."
Now I slowed the cadence as I recited the last four words, pointing with deliberation at each boy in turn.
"And – you – are – it!"
"It" was Anton.
Both boys looked bewildered. "What does that mean?" pleaded Jeff. "If he's 'it,' he's wrong. Right?"
I slowly shook my head. "I'm afraid not," I said. "'It' means he wins. You'll have to give him the point."
Jeff was indignant. "It's not fair," he said, swiping the air with his racket.
"Whoa, whoa," I counseled. "Are you questioning Ink-a-dink?"
"I'm not," said Anton, beaming with satisfaction.
Enough said. The boys resumed their game and I resumed my seat on the sidelines.
I wondered if they really understood what had transpired. Or had they simply relented? If they had understood, both of them would have immediately acceded to the Solomonic wisdom of Ink-a-dink. During my formative years on the streets of rough and tumble Jersey City, kids, for the most part, were left to work out their differences without parental involvement. Many a time there were conflicts that would have brought us to blows if not for the invocation of a choosing rhyme.
Ink-a-dink was my favorite, perhaps because of the titillating suggestion of a girl being kissed. Two others I recall were the time-honored "Eeny, meeny, miny, mo" and the lesser known "One potato" ("One potato, two potato, three potato, four...").
Whatever the rhyme, its influence was unquestionable. Not only was a choosing rhyme used to settle differences, but to ensure that everyone was included in the play.
On my block, Sammy was the kid who never got picked when we were choosing sides for stickball. I still remember him, sweet-faced and chubby, hovering with hopeful anticipation as the captain of each team picked the kids he wanted. When Sammy was the only kid left standing, Ink-a-dink or one of the other choosing rhymes had to be invoked to see who would get him. In this case, the last word of the rhyme, "it," fell on the captain who would then be obligated to take Sammy. And, judgment having been rendered, there was never a peep of protest. The "losing" captain simply said, "C'mon, Sammy" and waved him along. For his part, Sammy just wanted to be on a team, no matter the route to inclusion.
It's been many years since I've heard kids recite a choosing rhyme. Either these verses are still in use but I'm not listening, or these rhymes passed from the culture as parents became more and more deeply involved in what used to be child's play, settling disputes that kids used to handle themselves.
Is this a good or a bad thing? Who knows? But choosing rhymes are a form of poetry, and poetry is music, and music, as everyone knows, soothes the savage breast. It certainly worked for me.