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October 23, 2006

When I was at Hadley School in Swampscott, MA, the playground was an asphalt parking lot. The regular recess scene had a few teachers standing around smoking cigarettes while dozens of kids swirled in every direction.

Essentially, recess in the second grade consisted of running as fast as possible across the fenced-in lot and catching girls. I lived near the Lynn line and was too poor to attend a school that could afford a kickball or some grass, so it was all about running.

As kids we placed a premium on sneakers that would go fast. That’s probably why most of my bumps and bruises came from running into racks of shoes or confused customers at Buster Brown.
Sprinting up and down the aisles was the best way to test a pair of new Keds and breaking them in properly was accomplished by wearing them home right from the store. Then not taking them off until you were already in bed for the night. Sneakers are still my favorite piece of clothing – even with the David Gwatkin incident weighing heavily on my soul to this day.
OK, since you didn’t ask, the David Gwatkin ‘event’ occurred during a third or fourth-grade field day. With the solid foundation of asphalt parking lot running in my blood, I literally cruised through my later schooling as a quick little urchin.
I fancied myself as one of the fastest kids in the school and coming from my girl-chasing experiences at Hadley I had no reason to think differently.

Until David Gwatkin…
That day in fourth grade, we lined up for the 50-yard dash with valuable polyester ribbons at stake. We stood in sneakers that were well worn and ready to speed for a handful of seconds across the real grass they had at Soule Road School.
In my romanticized memory I imagine that Paul Kurtz (the gym teacher) fired off a .22 pistol, but it was probably just someone yelling “GO” at the top of their lungs. So we darted from the line together and with my little legs churning I ended up a fraction of a second behind David Gwatkin.
The gasping for air was nothing compared to the confidence-shattering result. In fact, in an attempt to ease my mind and deal with my demons, I called David. He’s now in charge of group sales for Burke Mountain in VT and had to be prodded heavily to remember how he shamed me and my Keds.
Sure, it’s only been 30 years, but you’d think a win like that would shape a person’s emotional and professional future. Similarly, a devastating loss like the one I suffered would probably create a garbage-sifting, railroad car-riding, unwashed hobo. Or that’s what an increasing number of school districts across the country would have you believe.
Take for example the school department in Attleboro, MA. They recently decided that all contact sports at recess – including Tag, Flag Football and probably anything with cooties – should be banned. This is similar to the schools that have banned keeping score in children’s games. Or the schools that have changed the rules of dodge ball so that when you’re hit with a ball you don’t really have to leave the playing field – that’s just so kids’ feelings don’t get hurt.
Their thought process, and I am being generous calling it that, is focused on the possibility of a child falling and skinning a knee or getting a boo-boo.
I guess the people in Attleboro must be a little more litigious than the rest of the universe and the Superintendent and school committee have assumed that a fourth grader is likely to sue the school if she gets hurt during recess.
Next we’ll hear that some schools will be dressing each child in those bear-attack suits so they can’t get hurt. Or better still, they’ll be building individual sound chambers so those dangerous sticks, stones and words can’t ever hurt them.
I imagine that I fell down once or twice in that asphalt parking lot in Swampscott. I’m sure that Jonathan Bardwell hurt my feelings with words while I waited at the bus stop. And I know with certainty that I was the second fastest kid at Soule Road School in Wilbraham, MA.
I also know that if I ruled the universe, I’d gather all the school administrators in Attleboro and put them into an eight-foot pit for the longest game of dodgeball you’ve ever seen.