Lessons from the playground

By Wesley Harris

I still have my marbles. At least some of them.

I wasn’t very involved in sports as a kid. I did read the entire set of World Book Encyclopedia by end of sixth grade, though. Never joined Little League or participated in school sports teams. The school playground was the extent of my sports participation and even that was tentative, always the smallest boy in my class and perpetually one of the last chosen when teams were selected.

The competitiveness on the playground was fierce.

Whether it was attacking one another’s pine straw forts, playing ball, or shooting marbles, some of my classmates took the games way too seriously. Friendships were placed on temporary hold while on the field of battle. 

The fights linked to the rough-and-tumble life of growing up on the wrong side of town in the sixties were innocuous for the most part. You didn’t throw punches. More like the Mid-South Wrestling we watched on Saturdays than real fighting. It got you taken to the principal’s office but unlike today, you didn’t get charged criminally and kicked out of school.

Recess did not provide time for full-fledged ball games. Even in P.E. class, by the time we got organized into teams and assignments made, the period ended. Sometimes you were glad of the brevity of the class considering the wide range of sizes and strengths among the boys in fifth and sixth grade. It could be brutal out there.

But marbles were the playground equalizer. Physical strength, size, and speed don’t matter in a game of marbles. Since the action is subdued in marbles, there’s less chance heat will rise to the level of fisticuffs.

Marbles have a long history. They have been excavated in the ruins of the Pharaohs’ Egypt and on Civil War battlefields. Marbles are mentioned in the writings of ancient Rome and were even banned from a town in medieval Germany.

In my youth, the keenest contests on the playground came in marbles. The most ferocious competitors collected the marbles of unfortunate losers like they were gold nuggets. Marbles are a competition, but one where skill and luck both play a role. Less skillful players can participate knowing at least a chance of success exists as opposed to game of skill like chess with little to no chance of a win. 

You had to know the rules. The greatest faux pas in any competition was to be in the middle of the action and realize you didn’t know the rules. Embarrassment and humiliation followed.

The first rule was to decide if you were playing for “keeps.” Either marbles are given back to the owner at the end of the game, or players keep the marbles they win. Though playing for “keeps” emphasizes claiming the property of others, it provided lessons in loss, fairness, and status building.

To begin a game, normally a circle is drawn on the ground with a diameter of 3- 6 feet. You can use chalk on the sidewalk or blacktop. Our circles were much smaller to compensate for the drag of marbles rolling on our rough hardpacked dirt playground. Marbles were placed near the center of the circle. To determine who went first, we “lagged,” tossing a marble at the line drawn about ten feet away. Order of play was determined by how close each marble came to the line. 

To shoot the marble, a player rested his knuckles on the ground and used his thumb to flick the marble from his hand. The goal of each shot was to hit a marble and knock it out of the circle. If the player knocked a marble out, then he kept the marble for the rest of the game and took another turn. If no marble was knocked out of the circle, the next player took a turn. The first shot must be taken from the edge of the circle. If the shooter stayed inside the circle, then next shot was be taken from the spot where the shooter landed. 

Cheating brought cries of unfairness, but complaints rarely changed the outcome. Winners and losers were expected to finish the match with grace and sportsmanship and those attitudes prevailed most of the time. The courage needed to face a playground champion was no small matter for a newcomer, previous loser, or tentative player, but he knew instant recognition and status came with success in the fateful encounter of the game. A player risked his marbles, but more important, he risked his pride.

The phrase “to lose one’s marbles” is more than just an expression about one’s mental state. To lose a prized marble carried a price. And it is no mistake that someone who has “lost his marbles” idiomatically also suffers losses.

We prize status markers, and games like marbles teach us early about their importance. But they also force us to face loss as a part of life—and perhaps this is why we find marbles in so many places throughout history. Even the expert can lose, so marbles teach about calculating risks and when to take chances. It’s not easy facing the playground champion, but a path of potential matches can lead up to that ultimate battle. Though possible loss exists, nothing is gained unless something is gambled. 

The player with the most marbles at the end of the game was the winner. The saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” attributed to multimillionaire Malcolm Forbes, would suggest the most important thing in life is collecting playthings. That’s a trivial life priority, but by itself might mean having fun while you can enjoy it. But it depicts life as a contest where “winning” comes not through fulfillment or happiness while living, but by accumulating the most stuff by death. Unfortunately, the win comes posthumously.

The message here is simple. Who we are is far more important than what we have! Life is more than stuff.

The last time I played marbles was in sixth grade in 1969. You put away your marbles when you entered junior high. We weren’t kids any more. At least that’s what we thought. It was a turning point; we were growing and hopefully learned some lessons on the playground, but moving on from elementary school opened a season for other lessons.

I haven’t lost my marbles. Yet. At least not the ones in the glass jar in the closet.


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