When I was in grade school, recess was the best part of the day. The lunch break was superior because it was the longest break. After eating, we would race outside to play. There was one particular long recess in sixth grade that is my only really memorable one because it was perfect.
When I was growing up, so much of my socialization was based on gender. I had to learn the right boy behavior or risk being called a sissy or a faggot. I didn’t really understand the complexities of these words, but the meaning wasn’t as important as the clear negative connotations. These were the worst names I could be called. Being teased because of my last name was annoying and unimaginative but the sting of being called a fag was painful. It meant I didn’t fit in.
Proper gender behavior meant so many things. It was better to remove my t-shirt by lifting it over my head from the bottom using both hands. Not bending over or getting the shirt caught on my head was mandatory. Pulling one arm through a sleeve, pulling the shirt over my head, and removing the other arm was not a manly technique. Books had to be carried cupped by one hand hanging at my side. Holding books with both hands in front of my body was too feminine. When sitting, legs should be crossed with an ankle on the knee. Girls crossed legs at the knee or maybe at the ankle. It is best for a boy not to cross at all but to spread his legs and lean back with an attitude. It seemed like there was a boy way and a girl way to do almost everything. I read that pink was once a color for boys and pale blue was for girls until Hitler made homosexuals wear pink triangles, thus changing pink to a girl color and blue to a boy color. It was an insult to tell a boy he runs like a girl or throws like a girl. There was so much to learn, and the consequences to mistakes were public shame and ridicule.
At recess, the boys and girls almost exclusively played separately. Boys played boy games and girls played girl games. At this time, our school had only one official school sport for girls and that was cheerleading. Boys could play team sports but not the girls.
I didn’t fit in well to this socialization. I liked playing with the girls and with the boys. I hated organized sports like Little League where adults spoiled the fun and yelled and punished the less athletic kids like myself. However, I loved playing intermural sports and neighborhood games. I played a lot of baseball, basketball, and football with neighbors. And we often let the girls in the neighborhood who wanted to join us and who had skills play with us. At recess, sometimes I liked playing with the girls. I enjoyed jumping rope, hopscotch, and jacks, which were considered girl activities. I was one of the rare kids who always had friends who were girls as well as boys. I never felt fully a part of a group but chose individuals as my friends. I still do that.
On one particular recess in sixth grade, I organized a game of kickball, which I loved. It was like baseball but with a big rubber ball that was kicked instead of batted. I loved this game for many reasons. All you needed to play was a ball. Everyone could participate and succeed reasonably well. And we didn’t need any adults helping or coaching us.
Sports were not the only activity divided by gender. It seemed that most things were separated. There were boy books and girl books. I loved to read and enjoyed the Doctor Doolittle series, Minute Mysteries, and a number of kids’ books with male adventures and mishaps. I did love a book that somehow slipped through to me though the main characters were girls and that was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankenweiler. Musical instruments were gendered with mainly percussion and brass for boys and strings and woodwinds for girls. Piano had no gender bias. Toys were gendered. The only girl toy I remember enjoying was my sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. I never had an interest in dolls for girls or action figures for boys. I liked to play imaginary adventure and hero games which was a very male activity, but I was willing, at times, to play school with my sister and her friends if they wanted me to join them so they would have someone to teach. That was a girl game. My father was great and would play anything I wanted with me. He didn’t care if it was a “girl” or “boy” activity. If I was engaged, he would engage with me. He played many a game of catch and also of jacks with me.
It seems like gender norms are changing rapidly. I know people who are trans and non-binary and gender fluid and gender non-conforming. The language is changing. Pronouns are changing. Understanding is (hopefully) changing. But when I was in sixth grade, it was a simple social system embedded in our culture. Therefore, it was revolutionary when I was recruiting players for my kickball game at recess and I invited all the kids from my class to play. We had boys and girls, athletes, popular kids, smart kids, slow kids, unpopular kids, non-descript kids, everyone included. For that one short period of time, everyone was just a kid having fun. At one point, our teacher showed up and we realized that recess had ended a good half hour earlier and other than us, the playground was empty. None of us had noticed. We were all engaged in joining together to play a game. I think of the old ad for Armour Hotdogs that went, “Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox.” For this brief, fleeting, and very memorable moment, possibly the only one in my school days, everyone was included and none of us suffered from that behavior. We were all engaged in joining together to play a game. For the only time in my grade school days, everyone was included.