It’s more than Four Square

6 Jul

“It’s just a summer job. No strings attached,” I told myself walking into my first 9:45-3:45 shift at the Sheridan and Parkside playground in the Town of Tonawanda. Working as a playground supervisor in the middle of the projects exposes me to lots of kids, kids growing up in the kind of place I usually avoided, until now. At first, the kids were just a mass of children running and jumping and rumbling together in what resembled one gigantic mass of ill-fitting clothing, scraped knees and mud streaked faces. Then came the four square. I’m not sure why I started playing. I think I was bored, and it seemed like fun, which it was- it makes the time go by faster than it ever has before.

Something began to happen during that very first four-square game, and there was no turning back. It started with learning their names: Dominique, Daniel, Anthony, Antonio, Ronald, Caroline, EJ, JJ, Jonny, Anthony……I then noticed  the outline of 7-year-old Ronald’s ribs, one of the few the older kids call a “young one.” They look out for him and bring him home when they playground closes. The first night he sat in the middle of the parking lot Indian style with his head in his hands crying because he didn’t want to go home. Three older boys stood around him convincing him he could come back to play tomorrow. Was this a case of a child not wanting to leave the playground, or a child fearful of going home? I’m not sure.

Earlier in the day, Ronald’s older brother, “E.J.” said he wants to one day work at the playground. He said it so softly to me while we stood in line waiting to play four square that I could barely hear him- he had to repeat it twice. I told him one day he could work at the playground and that he would be very good at it; he finally took his eyes off from the ground, looked me in the eye, and his face broke into a grin. I guess it was then that I realized I am a very different kind of person in these kid’s lives.

Take their language, for instance. I didn’t know swear words until middle school, maybe? I can’t remember well, but I certainly did not know them in elementary school. For Dominique, Anthony and Alex swearing is a natural way to express themselves. They’re going into fourth and fifth grade. I explain to them that swearing is not allowed at the playground. “So what are you, a cop?” Domique challenges me with his question. He’s got jet black hair cut into a mohawk, a huge Marlborro t-shirt and cargo jean shorts hanging way past his knees with big, black sneakers. Dominique is a punk. He’s got an anger problem, and I’m afraid what it will turn into when he’s older. Right now he cannot accept when he gets out in four-square. He lies about where the ball landed, and if he doesn’t get his way he will either hop on his rusted out bike and ride away, or verbally assault whoever it was who got him out.

His brother, Daniel, has dark skin, jet black hair and big, sea-green eyes. Unlike Dominique, I like Daniel, who has an attitude like his brother but without the cutting edge. He’s a leader, and he’s kind, too. Daniel, who will be in fifth grade this year, walks up to me and asks for a lighter. I fight the sickening feeling I get in my stomach- “Not Daniel,” I think, “He can’t smoke, unlike his brother Dominique he just doesn’t seem that stupid, and even if he is, why would he ask me when he should know the answer?” I ask him what for. He turns his pockets inside out and pulls from them a lone firecracker he wants to go off. I am visibly relieved, until he smiles and says daringly that him and his brother are hooked on cigarettes. Maybe they’re all talk. Maybe he’s just testing me to see how I’ll respond, but something tells me there’s a darker part of these kids everyday lives, away from the sunny playground filled with board games and boondogle, that I will never understand.

Maybe it was the moment when, playing four-square, ten-year-old Alex mentioned as if he were discussing tomorrow’s weather, that he had just come from a house, and in it, he saw a man seated on the floor holding a knife with a pool of blood all over his chest, that my heart broke in two. I ask him why he was in the house. “To get a frisbee.” He bounces the ball to his left and gets me out. “Yeah, but for us it’s no big deal,” he says, moving to the third square.

The game breaks up when the playground closes at 8 p.m., and I’m left to wonder what kind of world these children head back into.

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3 Responses to “It’s more than Four Square”

  1. Elena July 7, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    It is a melancholy experience to allow your mind to comprehend some of the dynamics these children have to face everyday. But there is much hope in recognizing the influence you can have on them and pure joy when there is breakthrough!!

  2. slippedink July 7, 2009 at 11:57 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Elena! It’s the first ever. It is sad to think about the reality these kids face everyday, and it can seem hopeless at times that the small influence I have will ammount to anything, but maybe, over time, it will. : )

  3. justinmulwee July 8, 2009 at 1:03 am #

    I think your influence may amount to more than you think. I was raised in (and still live in) a very crappy neighborhood full of violent crime and drug addicts and abandoned houses. A lot of people where I live don’t even know anyone who’s been to college. Fortunately there were people in my life to look up to, to tell me I could do and be whatever I wanted. And lo and behold, I’m not a crackhead.

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