As a requirement for my MFA program, I gave a lesson on how to research your own past. I wrote out writing prompts on index cards and encouraged people to take them with them. Instead, they took pictures with their cell phones, and asked me to put the prompts here on my web site. I will do so, but at the rate of one per week.
Something that happened in another part of my life, the part where I am a substitute teacher, recently brought one of these prompts to mind and motivated me to get moving with posting them.
Here’s the story:
We were at recess when one of the second grade boys ran up to me, breathless, in what looked like a panic. I was afraid that someone had been hurt.
The boy said, urgently: “Mrs. Lardas! Mrs. Lardas! We need you to [unintelligible]!”
He: “We need you to [unintelligible] Strawberry Shortcake!”
Me, perplexed: “What? I cannot make sense of the words you’re using.”
He, almost frantically: “We need you to help us play Strawberry Shortcake!”
Me: “How do I do that? And, why?”
He: “Strawberry Shortcake! You know, you hold the end of the jump rope and say, ‘Strawberry Shortcake with a cherry onna top, how many girlfriends do you got?’ while a guy jumps rope in the middle, and you count while he jumps, until the rope hits his foot, and then that’s how many girlfriends he’s got. But Mrs. Lardas! None of us are tall enough to put the rope over [Name]’s head! We NEED you!”
Which is how I came to hold one end of the jump rope today for the boys at recess.
What this brought to mind was this:
In my day, it went:
“Ice cream soda with a cherry on the top!
Pop the initials of your sweetheart!
Capital A, Bee-ee,
C, Dee-ee […..]”
Only girls were allowed to jump rope, and for a few years there only boys were allowed to play ball.
The writing prompt has two parts. The first is this:
What songs or rhymes did you use as a child at recess?
This could bring up jump rope songs, ways of counting people out (“One potato, two potato…”), singing games, general games played at recess, etc.
Write down what you remember, and use a lot of detail, beyond the words of the songs themselves. Capture the feeling of the sun on your face or of your nose growing cold and moist, how you felt about the school and your classmates, etc.
Then, think of fallout or consequences of one of those songs. For example, in high school, there were two boys whom I liked and who liked me. I couldn’t eat my dessert one day at lunch, and they both finished their own and wanted mine when I offered it to the others at our table, so I used my elementary school’s version of “Eenie, meanie, miney, moo,” which ended with “And you are out, o-u-t-out,” to choose.
This wasn’t how their school ended the song, and one of the boys accused me of doing it to manipulate things so the other one got my cake.
I remember feeling unjustly accused, I remember realizing that it must reflect how he felt at not being the one.
I could write it from several different angles — the tension of the choosing and the reaction of each boys, the memory of high school lunches at Commonwealth, the deeper memory of my early childhood and how I felt more comfortable remembering it at school than at home…..
What I should do is write something, and see what comes of it.
And you should, too. Think back on the games you played, the songs you sang for school performances and for games at recess, the ways in which you chose teams and what it felt like to be chosen, what it felt like not to be chosen, what it felt like to have to choose.
And if your memories come out too philosophical or wordy, ask yourself the question I learned to ask of every packet that I sent to my mentor — is there anything, in those pages, that you can smell? If not, go back and be more concrete.