In the Luther Burbank Elementary School of the early sixties, the rules governing playground behavior were clear. Don’t hit or punch. Don’t say bad words or names. Don’t destroy things. Don’t hang upside-down on the monkey bars. Don’t fly off the roundabout after you and your friends have got it up to lightspeed. Don’t be mean to the girls.
I can see the wisdom behind some of these rules. They did not contribute to my (or my friends’) happiness at all, but they were good for the happiness of a few teachers and the principal. Some of the rules made for the smooth functioning of the playground, so that it might go on indefinitely, for all anyone knew.
The teachers stood together, under the awning, smoking, reviewing the day, listing misbehaviors and commenting on the disparate apparel of us African-American, Choctaw, Hispanic and Caucasian kids, mostly poor. Those were sunny days on the swings, under the regime of playground rules, and we all thought they would go on forever.
In a much wider playground, there are other and less clear rules. These too do not contribute much to my happiness. I am very sure, however, that they are good for the principal. And yes, this playground is meant to go on indefinitely.
Here are a few of those rules:
1. Don’t talk about the playground fence, or what’s on the other side of the fence, or that there’s anything other than recess on the schedule.
2. Don’t talk about candy, where it comes from, who has more and who has less. If you say anything rude about candy-hoarding, and hoard-protection, then you will get hit and punched. You will cry.
3. Don’t say anything bad about the strange movements of candy-hoards. Yes, it’s true once in a while that a new candy-source is found, and the total candy number gets bigger. But more times than not, if someone loses candy, that candy goes to someone else. Don’t point this out, because this is the dirtiest playground secret, and it is altogether possible that the principal is involved.
4. Don’t complain when you have to pay back more candy than what you borrowed, even if the difference between the original amount and the net is a lot. Don’t ever suggest that a lot of this payback candy is going into the candy-hoards that no one knows about or talks about. Don’t point out the obvious that sooner or later, all the kids are going to owe a lot more candy to the candy-lenders than they could ever pay back, and when that happens, swingset time will be cut in half, the roundabouts can only be spun slowly, and the monkey-bars can only be climbed a third of the way up.
5. Don’t ask anyone, especially the teachers, if they remember or dream. Bad words will be said about you. You will be called names. Don’t ask where the playground equipment came from. The principal has said that these things kind of just put themselves together: you know he doesn’t really believe that tripe … psychologically, he just deals with things and people the way they are, and forgets about causes and ends. That's why he can do what he does -- namelessly, anonymously, abstractly. Causes and ends give you a name, after all.
6. Don’t lose sight of the bullies. Don’t hang around the smart black kid, or the whiny girl who kills squirrels and can’t say her ing’s, or the roly poly older kid, or the kid from Scranton. They tell their friends that they can protect them from the bullies and that they can change the playground rules. They mean well, but, you know, they're really only kids and the bullies remain. The candy-hoarders think that they themselves are the bullies and are proud as Pontius that they are king of the monkey bars, the swingers all day and the ones who spin the roundabout. But the real bullies, the real mean ones, come from over the fence. The principal knows about this.
7. Don’t say anything bad about candy-hoarding or candy-loaning, or the friends of the whiny girl will cry. Don’t complain about how the bullies beat up the smallest kids and make them disappear, because for some stupid inconsistent reason, the friends of the smart black kid will really get mad and call you names. Don’t read books, and try to act intelligent, because the whiny elite friends will call you an elitist and will report you to the principal. Don’t tell the smart friends that there are Rules bigger and older than the playground rules.
8. Don’t say anything when you see the bullies throw kids off the monkey bars, or kick them off the roundabout, or take the swings for themselves. Don’t say anything. Pay your candy back. Forget the sky and the hills, the trees on the other side of the rusty chain-link fence. Forget the fence.
9. Remember the rules. If you don’t, they’ll hang you upside-down.
Today, I googled my old school. And I found Burbank on Lakewood Street. I remember the big assemblies, where we heard about old Luther inventing the navel orange, and then sang the Burbank song to the tune of “Tell Me Why.”
We had thought, then, that the playground would go on forever.
But the google photo at street view, taken sometime this last February, showed a blank field where the kids used to play. There are no monkey bars. The roundabout has been carted away. The swings are wound up, the chains melted down. The school itself is empty, ramshackle, broken windows above the sunfaded aluminum panels.
Something must have happened from the other side of the fence.