It was well known that little Johnny met his end at the edge of the soccer field during after-school enrichment. The circumstances behind his tragic demise are unknown or mostly forgotten, but testimonies from multiple sources of a finger being found poking out of the bark chips located along the soccer field give this fact some backing.
However, by “fact” I mean sloppily fabricated rumor, and by “well known” I mean knowledge largely restricted to and discussed by the second-grade class of 2008.
Once word got out, the far half of the soccer field became “no man’s land.” Balls and toys that were carelessly tossed that way were abandoned.
I think it was Annya Dahmani or one of the Saunders twins who first informed me of Johnny’s death and the discovery of his finger. Despite there having been no student by the name of Johnny prior to news of his death breaking, I mulled over how he might have died for weeks.
But something else soon grabbed my attention because as mundane as lower-school recess seems, some controversy or plan was always brewing.
For one, there were many attempts to build a fort. These forts were large-scale operations that occasionally required the effort, and secrecy, of our entire class.
Our biggest and best fort was constructed in the winter of 2008. It was built behind a huge pine tree, hidden from the rabble and lower-school teachers on yard duty (or so we thought). By the time I finally mindlessly happened upon it, a crew of seven or eight was already hard at work.
No one was in charge. No one had a blueprint. No one knew how exactly we were going to manage to hoist a roof. We each had a single aim: to find a stick – a big one – and bring it back. Then repeat.
A large, C-shaped branch that had fallen during a storm provided the base of our fort. The branch rested in between the backside of the pine tree and a neighbor’s fence. All we needed to do was add more twigs and sticks to support our main branch, fill in the holes and leave room for a doorway.
Word spread about the fort, and the entire class was recruited – about 30 eight-year-olds.
We’d anxiously rush out during snack time and lunch to inspect the fort, and then we’d scatter to find more sticks or break them off of trees.
The survival of the fort was on everyone’s minds. We had no tape or glue to keep our fortress together, so even a misdirected sneeze could topple the whole thing.
Weekends were especially harrowing.
“What if someone invaded?” I thought “What if someone knocked it down? What if some squirrels with rabies broke in?”
But the fort pulled through.
When it was time to install the roof, the team took turns stationed inside the fort. Two people sat and held up the roof as best they could as the others tried to support it using more twigs. To test the security of the roof, we’d scream “OK! Let go!”
This method often ended with the roof giving way and students being caught in cave-ins. Most of the times they’d emerge covered in debris, bright-eyed and smiling, saying “I know what we did wrong!” The Debbie Downers that would surface sulking were exiled.
During my time in the fort, someone once threw a handful of dirt on top and it trickled down through the sticks into my eyes. I was blinded and teary-eyed, but continued to hold up the roof all through recess.
When the fort was settled (I’m hesitant to say finished since no one really stopped adding to it), it was big enough for three kneeling second graders. We’d cram inside and eat snack. Everyone was so proud and couldn’t believe that we had gotten away with it.
But we hadn’t. About a week after the fort’s grand opening, a kid told me that she had watched as some adult maliciously stomped on our fort to destroy it.
We attempted to recreate our fort in the hedges, but were easily caught. We tried making a pueblo using mud from the mud pit, but ended up with more of an anthill.
It was decided. Our fort was dead. A few years later, the tree that supported it was chopped down as well.
But something else soon grabbed our attention. After all, some controversy was always brewing.
A kid had created a contraband radio out of what looked like Legos, a battery and some wires. He had set a floppy antenna just so that we could faintly hear the late 2000s’ greatest hits. It was miraculous. Students flocked to marvel at his creation.
And then I broke it.
“What would happen if you just straightened out this antenna?” I thought.
The answer, apparently, was that the world would end. As soon as I touched the wire, we heard static. The kid screamed and started crying. The students crowded around him looked confused, not realizing the implications yet.
When it hit them, it was the end of life as we knew it. They rolled on the ground and yelled my name in outrage. I had killed music and culture and everything good and holy in this world in one fell swoop. According to public opinion, I sucked.
It took a while to come back from that one but, luckily for me, something else soon grabbed their attention: the mud pit had been replaced by swings, and a new question sparked our interest. How many people could stand on one swing without the chain breaking?