David Segal: Playground peril

David Segal
Continental Divine

The lower school playground, which served grades K through 5, was an afterthought of dirt and gravel on the edge of campus. A chain link fence separated it from a busy thoroughfare. It was strewn with patches of feeble grass and aging playground equipment. Recess released us from the decorum of the classroom, and here in the micro-wilderness we could let our imaginations — and our impulses — loose.

The sole adult on recess duty was usually Coach Broccoli. That’s what we called him because his last name was Brockman and we were clever children. He was skilled at coaching basketball and volleyball, but the main job of the recess supervisor was to make sure no one died. By that metric, as far as I know, he was an unqualified success.

One of the games that dominated those elementary playground days was known as Kissing Girls. A gaggle of plaid-jumpered girls would coalesce loosely into a roving gang, as few as two and as many as a half dozen. Their mission: to chase boys with intent to kiss.

I don’t think there was much planning, like in a heist film when fast-talking masterminds orchestrate their attack and escape routes using scale models and 3-D imaging. More likely, the impulse erupted spontaneously, in the mysterious way of children at play. The girls huddled briefly and then peeled off to hunt their prey.

The rules of the game were simple, even severe. The Kissing Girls chased boys, threatening to kiss them. The boys fled in fear and disgust. There was no home base.

The gameplay had no stated definition of winning or losing, but there was a tacit understanding that a boy who was caught and kissed would be deemed a loser. To my knowledge, however, no Kissing Girl ever caught a boy. The game was the chase.

It is odd, looking back on this prepubescent pursuit, that the genders were reversed, in contrast to the cliche of adult dating where men chase women relentlessly, often to no avail. Is it adolescence when the roles switch? But grown-up dating, one might object, is about romance and relationship, while this schoolyard game was about power and fear. Then again, in the #MeToo moment it’s impossible to ignore the power and fear that distort adult interactions.

It is odd, too, that the Kissing Girls never chased me. I wonder if it’s because I wasn’t afraid of them. They were, after all, girls I was friendly with in the classroom. It’s not that I lacked boys as friends. But in the big sorting of schoolboys into the binary of the bullies and the bullied, I was destined for the latter caste. I assume the Kissing Girls weren’t afraid of me, either.

In Kindergarten, our class walked single-file every Wednesday morning to a chapel service. For several weeks in a row, a classmate lined up behind me and, on the way to chapel, goosed me. (Fun fact: that’s when I learned “goose” can be a verb.) What was it about me that made me a target? What was it about him that inspired him to pinch my butt each week? When I complained about the gooser to my mother, she said, “Don’t walk in front of him.”

Though I did not fear the Kissing Girls, other dangers lurked on the playground. On one end of the yard sat a two-story wooden fort. It looked like an antebellum outpost after an invading army’s scorched earth campaign. The wood’s surface was so coarse that it generously offered up long splinters into the hands and buttocks of children, the silver lining being that a three-inch wood shard is easy to extract. The fort was surprisingly derelict for an elite private school.

Pairs of these thick wooden beams were stacked in alternating directions, creating the look of a log cabin but with log-size gaps between each layer. These gaps let the walls double as ladders to the upper floor of the fort, which was open to the sky. We would climb the walls and stand at the wooden ramparts, atop the playground’s most defensible position, on the lookout for approaching threats (and oblivious to the threats from the structure itself).

The ends of the horizontal support beams extended past the wall line, like an exposed half rib cage. One day I was standing at the highest point of the fort, probably 15 feet off the ground, when I lost my balance and fell. Halfway down, I broke my fall and nearly my back when I slammed into the protruding end of the uppermost beam. After impact, I slid off and hit the packed dirt below.

I was too stunned to cry, but I knew my back was not in good shape. I lifted my white polo shirt and bystanders described my back as red and badly scraped. I have a visual memory of it — like a medieval prisoner after 40 lashes — but I don’t think there’s any way I could have seen it myself. I was not actively bleeding, at least not externally.

I found Coach Broccoli, who had not witnessed my near-death experience.

“I fell off the top of the fort and hit my back on the way down and scraped it really bad,” I explained.

“Go get a drink of water from the water fountain,” he said.

“Walk it off.”

David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at His column runs the first Sunday of the month.