When I was a schoolboy, it was the 70s. This might surprise a lot of people, especially me, but it seems that I was in fact alive and thinking almost forty years ago. Weird. And back then, I was a student in Tarbert National School, a pretty dismal establishment where priests would float in and out of our classroom and tell us what to do, and sent groups of children – children – to confession once a month, where we could make up a bunch of sins we’d never actually enjoyed, and request forgiveness for them, from a priest who was probably reading a western novel on the other side of the booth.
But to keep us sane, we had playground games. I remember several of these, all to do with running fast and hard, banging into people and being manly, even though we were all seven years old. The one I remember most strongly was a thing called “guards and prisoners”. It might sound like a delightful game of admin and paperwork and legal proceedings, but alas, no. It was a game of running and banging into people and being manly. And here’s how it worked.
In our playground there was a shelter – a concrete structure with a hard bench designed to keep children outdoors and in a minor but constant amount of pain. The shelter – measuring five or six square metres – was the free zone where the prisoners in the game would gather. Outside of the shelter were the guards, standing at random points around the much larger schoolyard. And deep in their territory was the “jail” where captured prisoners would be placed.
The idea was for the prisoners to charge out and run around the playground without getting captured, and then back into the shelter, where they would be greeted as heroes. But if they were wrestled to the ground by guards, they would be put into the jail. From here they could only escape if another prisoner ran by, right through the jail area, and made a peculiar “baaa-aaa-aaaa-a” sound, which I always assumed was a machine-gun from the 1920s, or a panic-stricken sheep.
In this way, the prisoners would build up in the jail until the last one was caught and the game ended. However, an interesting loophole emerged, in that an occasional prisoner, having been imprisoned according to the rules of the game, would suddenly decide, from inside the jail area, that he was in actual fact “just pretending to be caught” and make the feared “baaa-aaa-aaaa-a” sound and free every single damn prisoner in the jail. This was frowned upon, but if the boy doing it was large, it really didn’t matter, because it happened anyway.
I remember the feeling of charging around the yard as a prisoner, avoiding the grasping hands of larger boys, and back into the shelter at high speed, except for the time I ran into the concrete wall and blacked out, waking to find a ring of boys gazing down at me in bewilderment, as I felt the throb of the massive cranial lump I would carry around for the following week or two.
I wish there was a life lesson from this time, but I can’t find one. But it sure did point out to me the importance of a sense of balance, and a mistrust of people in prison, and of people in charge, along with a healthy dislike of hard concrete walls. So I guess that was something. Not much, but at least something.
(Note: I tried to find an image on google to conjure up those long-gone schooldays, but nothing came even remotely close in terms of grimness. So you’ll have to make do with stock footage of cows at a market and a photo lifted from the school’s website of present-day children, the poor bastards, as they are slid deeper into the glistening fan club of Jesus Christ, our dude and eternal saviour, using the burning, tingling lube of gloriousness and prayer. Amen indeed.)