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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"I Just Learned It"

I've been thinking a lot lately about the things my Son suddenly seems to know -- the stuff he apparently imbibes from the air or learns through osmosis.

He comes home singing songs I used to sing, "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..." and I know, of course, that one of his friends taught him.

But where did that friend learn the song? It's not the sort of thing we parents tend to teach our kids. So who is passing on these hallowed torches of childhood?

This year, in Kindergarten, jump rope became all the rage. It wasn't just the girls jumping as it had been when I was in elementary school. No, in fact, the boys seemed to be even more enthusiastic than the girls.

One day, Son came home lamenting that all they had were short jump ropes and that he wished they had a long one.  "Maybe we could buy one," he said hopefully, looking at me with eager eyes, "and then donate it." So we did. Of course, we had to buy a long one for our own house too, for practicing.

The next day, the kids were outside, and I heard the old, familiar strains wafting through the open window,

dressed in yell-a
went upstairs
to kiss a fella
made a mistake
and kissed a snake
how many doctors
did it take?
one, two, three...
I went outside, mesmerized by the rhyme that I could still recall after decades of forgetting. They were just moving on to
Teddy bear, teddy bear
turn around
teddy bear, teddy bear
touch the ground
teddy bear teddy bear
tie your shoe...
Maybe someone's mother taught them these rhymes, but all the kids seem to have no idea where they learned them. Like magic, these timeless children's games simply appear on the Kindergarten playground.

My Son, in this one academic year, not only learned to read, jump rope, and identify the parts of a worm. He also learned the power of traded objects and and the value of the "rare" item.  He gets that you don't trade a "plain" for a "rare" or it's a "rip off." He can negotiate. (On squishies: "I'll give you one large plus one small rare for your large rare.")  He apologizes nicely when explaining that he cannot in fact return to friend A the large that friend A traded to friend B who then traded it to my child -- "because I called no tradesie backsies when I traded with B, so I can't give it back to him, and I would have to give it back to him for him to give it to you."

He knows string tricks.

Granted, I taught him some of them -- but only after he had asked for a string and showed me his own prowess at cat's whiskers. Who, I asked him, taught him to do cat's whiskers. "I don't know," he replied. "I just learned it."

Like Athena springing forth fully-formed from Zeus's head, my child is quite suddenly competent in dozens of tiny skills that bring me up short. I realize with a shock that the rhythm of my childhood was shaped by jump-rope rhymes, string tricks, sticker collections and their attendant trades. I have no idea who taught me how to manage a collection or negotiate a trade.

I just learned it.

No one that I can remember ever taught us jump rope rhymes. We just knew them and practiced jumping to them until we could jump 100 doctors for Cinderella without stopping.

I hadn't thought about string tricks since I was about 8, but when my son handed me his string, the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times that I had run through the series from cat's whiskers to Jacob's ladder emerged without even trying. My fingers still knew what my conscious mind had forgotten.

I know in a practical sense that someone must be teaching this generation of children these things.  Someone's mother remembers "eiffel tower"  and teaches it in string to her child, who teaches it to his friends on the playground, and so on.

And yet there is a wonderfully mysterious and communal quality to this knowledge that erases its apparent source. No one can recall who first sang "Teddy Bear" while jumping; everyone can only remember who is able to touch the ground without getting tangled in the rope.  It is as if, in every generation, there are songs and games, pastimes and hobbies that simply cannot be kept down. They will burst forth into the glory of the playground or the school hallway, capture the imaginations of  eager children and be reiterated once again.

I fully expect, one summer evening a few years from now, to look out the front door and see my children playing Kick the Can in the growing dusk. They will not know where they learned the game or who knew it first. They will simply revel in the warmth of the street beneath their bare feet, the rattle of the can, the thrill of hiding, the smell of damp skin and summer heat.

And, in an instant, I will be transported to a moment in my youth that I had forgotten to remember. And my senses will come alive in memory. And for a moment, I will be a child--through my children--once again.


Marti said...

Oh how you brought me back! I love how you write and this one gave me a glimpse back into my past too.

LceeL said...

Look at the life of "Ring around the Rosy". That little cherub has been around since the Middle Ages - and the meaning has been lost to children for hundreds of years. And yet it persists.

And as for the "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, etc"? That was me. I taught that to my boys when they were very small - and more recently (a few years ago, actually), I taught it to my buddy Mark's boys (ages 8 and 10 now) - just to make sure my kids didn't keep it secret. Hmmm. It may be time to find some more kids to teach that to. If you catch them at the right age - they think it's the funniest thing they ever heard. And maybe it is.

Issas Crazy World said...

Shoot it ate my comment.

My girls drew a four square thing on our back porch last night. It gets played at day camp. I didn't know anyone still played.

I think we grow out of it and think it's gone, but really? It's all just passed on to younger kids.

rockygrace said...

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
all dressed in black, black, black ....

thanks for the memories!

Dr. Mom said...

"Great big gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts..."

Yes, I was the one who taught my kids this horrible camp song...

Thanks for your post, it was great! I taught my kids how to play checkers this weekend so it really touched me.

Amber said...

Isn't that one of the most wonderful things about being a parent? I had a magical childhood and love reliving so many of those great memories through my kiddos.

Jb said...

Rogue fairies teach these things, of course! One of my favorite chants..."So, so, suck your toe all the way to Mexico". I never even knew the second part until I had kids..."if you don't, I don't care, I'll pull down your underwear". Sweet. And a little sketchy ;)
Also love "great green gobs..." that Dr. Mom already mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I live in Australia, and I recognise almost all those songs and games mentioned in the post and comments. Interesting how universal simple playground games can be.

Daisy said...

Ah, the oral tradition! It passes through families and on school playgrounds and more. String tricks? Awesome! Look around for books that have more tricks; he can impress and outwit the others and even start his own traditions.

Kate Coveny Hood said...

Remember Miss Lucy? I never thought about origins before... And how DO those childhood traditions continue to be passed down...to endure over time? Amazing.

Armando Codina said...

Well, I think we grow out of it and think it's gone, but really? It's all just passed on to younger kids.


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