A look back at my mandatory home away from home.
When people think back to that ancient time of the 1950's, one of the main parts of the picture is the idea of the nuclear family, that true American family consisting of a mother, a father, 2.5 kids and a dog. They're living out in the suburbs, where mom cooks and cleans, and the kids play outside after school, and then dad comes home from the office and they all sit down to dinner. Well things have changed a lot since then. One of my college professors told me that when he was growing up, he only knew of one or two kids throughout his entire school tenure who had divorced parents. The whole idea was taboo, much like kids today who have two gay parents.
These days, however, children of divorce are probably closing in on being the majority. Me and two of my close friends are part of that group, each of us being raised by a single mother. We also lived in apartments, rather than houses (though still pretty much in the suburbs). And for me, after school did not mean I got to go home. No, since my mother was a working one, on the job from 9-5, the bus I stepped onto after school took me to the town's Community Center, which was the base for the local police force, the city hall, and the day care center. And this is where I went everyday, before school and after school, until my mama picked me up, from kindergarten through fifth grade. This... was daycare.
The place I went to was split up into three rooms: the Red Room, the Blue Room and the White Room. Kindergarteners and first graders went to the Red Room, second and third graders to the Blue Room, and fourth and fifth graders to the White Room. Each room was run by one or two chaperones; they were almost like teachers, participating in games, organizing activities and so forth. Some were strict and others were more lenient, but they all just wanted us kids to have fun.
And fun we needed to have. Being cooped up in there for two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, and all day during the summer months, we had to come up with a lot of options for ourselves. There were three different "venues" for these activities: inside the Red/Blue/White Room, or in the gymnasium, or outside at the park.
Let's start with the inside activities, the home base. Now to be honest, most of my memory only extends back to my days in the White Room (writing it like that makes it sound like the Grand Wizard ran the place), probably because I actually went there early, when I was in third grade. I guess they thought I was mature enough; I just thought it was bitchin'. There were a number of things to do in there. First and foremost, there were board games: Monopoly, Clue, Monopoly Jr., Clue Jr., Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Stratego, Risk, Sorry, Battleship, Jumanji, etc. I'm sure there were others, but most of the acclaim goes to Monopoly.
We must've played both of those games a hundred times. Not always to the very end, but it passed the time fine enough. I was always the battleship (and I always will be), and usually did fairly well. I know many circles practice different rules for this sacred game, though. Us, we had a few of our own: all taxes and other fees, if not designated to another player or players, was put in the middle of the board. When a player landed on Free Parking, he/she took the dough. If you landed right on Go, you not only collected $200, but got an extra $500 for your luck. So far most people I've played with since then have never heard of some of these rules, but it's what I know.
The White Room was the only room to have a computer, which back then was still kind of a new thing. I'd had a computer in my home since I could remember, but it was still fun playing games on there. My favorites included "Space Invaders" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?," which both may or may not have looked like the images below.
Another big inside activity was reading. The teachers were very adamant about us kids getting some reading done. Since they had us for the whole day in the summer time, they developed a little program called S.Q.U.I.R.T., which if I can remember right stood for "Sitting Quiet UnInterrupted Reading Time." Somewhere between a half hour and an hour was dedicated to us all grabbing something from the bookshelf and sitting down for a good read. If I didn't bring the latest Animorphs adventure from home, I'd usually choose one of the books from the "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series, or one of those god-awful "101 Joke" books.
Our next place of self-entertainment came from the gymnasium, which was just like any high school gymnasium, only it didn't have stands to sit in. We had basketballs, rubber balls, foam balls, wiffle balls, and really really big rubber balls. When I say big, I mean they were the size of one of us kids and we could only get our arms about half-way around them. I myself created two different games to play with these: one was to grab the ball, run forward and jump up and then down, causing you to sail off the ball and onto the mat below. We were soon told not to do that anymore. The other game was Sumo Match, where one person would hoist the ball in front of them on one side of the mat, and on the other side another person would stand, with no ball (that was usually me). The two people would run towards one another, crashing into each other. When I played, I would usually cause the person with the ball to fly back a good couple feet. We were also told not to do this anymore.
The most commonly-used items in the gym were the regular rubber or Nerf balls. Most may recognize them as the balls you play dodge ball with, but ironically dodge ball was not a big game with us. Instead, we played variations like Trench, Medic and Poison. Poison was by far the most popular. There were no teams and it was every man, woman and child for themselves. When you had the ball, you had a maximum of five steps to take before you had to throw it. If you hit somebody, they sat down, but if they caught your throw, you had to sit down. Once down, you had the option of either tagging someone running by (thus taking them down) or catching another throw to get back up. The winner was the last man standing. It was the ultimate challenge, and for a good while, I myself ruled as king.
The third avenue of entertainment was the outside world. The daycare center was right next to two parks, so often they would take us out there for a couple hours. In the summer time it was pretty much a daily, mandatory occurrence. My friends and I never cared for it too much. We could entertain ourselves for a while, but we would always be out there for too long. We didn't care about Vitamin D, damn it, we just wanted to go back inside and talk about Warhammer.
By far the #1 outside activity was Four Square. For the uninitiated, Four Square has a total of four players playing inside a big square that is divided into fourths. They are ranked 1-4, 4 being the first spot and 1 being the top spot. The kid in the top spot started off each game by serving the ball to someone, bouncing the ball and then hitting it into another square. It was like tennis, where the ball could bounce once and then you had to hit it into another square. When somebody lost, they had to leave the square and go to the end of the line. The person in the square behind the loser's would move up, and the next person in line would step into the 4 spot.
The different maneuvers are almost mind-bogglingly complicated now that I think about it. Maybe not so much complicated, actually, as simply numerous. I can remember a few things but I know I'm forgetting a lot. The server could start the game by dropping the ball in the middle and calling out "cherry bomb!" as each player dashed to step on one of the boundary lines before the ball hit the ground. A frequently-disputed move was the Bus Stop, where if the ball were coming directly at you, you could put your hands up to block the ball, dropping it to the ground and then hitting it. I always thought it was a very fair and necessary move. The same went for Chicken Feet, which was a measure that was enacted to prevent players from being eliminated when the ball was purposefully served at their feet, making it near impossible to hit it back out. Under Chicken Feet, the cheap bastard who served the ball was rightfully disqualified.
When we didn't have a ball or an appropriate Four Square area, it was left up to our imaginations to pass the time. This is when us guys would start play-fighting as Mortal Kombat warriors, or going on a suicide mission as Warhammer soldiers, or re-enacting a Star Wars adventure ("You're Han? No, no, no... I get to be Han."). Being a kid with a huge imagination, it was usually up to me to lead the pack, and looking back, I was a bit of a stern leader. Often I would have certain rules, such as the requirement that you make up your own character to be (I did this a lot when we played Mortal Kombat). I didn't understand why the other kids had such a hard time with it, as I was always brimming with ideas. I remember scoffing at one of my friends' suggestion that he was going to be "Johnny Cage Jr." I called him unoriginal and roundhouse-kicked him in the face.
After so much activity, we definitely needed a snack. In the summer we got school cafeteria-like meals, but to be honest I don't remember any specifics. For snacks, though, we often got Quaker Oats granola bars, or breadsticks. Not breadsticks like you would think; they were about five inches long, very thin and were just cylindrical-shaped crackers. I used to bite off one end and put it in my mouth like a cigar. To drink, we got tiny plastic cups of orange or grape juice with a label you peeled off the top. If you were lucky, your cup was from the bottom of the fridge and there was a brittle layer of frozen juice at the top. Talk about made in the shade.
There were many times that I hated going to daycare. In the summer, I was all too jealous of my friends that got to stay at home and play video games and watch whatever they wanted. I wanted to stay home in the mornings before school so I could watch Power Rangers, or go home after school... so I could watch Power Rangers. But looking back, it was a good experience to have. I learned how to socialize and be friends with other kids (even though I'm still learning) and it was either do that or nothing. The same thing can't always be learned at school, because so much time is spent in the classroom, with maybe a half hour of recess in a day. Well, daycare was like recess every day, all day long. And while a lot of the friendships I made back then bit the dust years and years ago, one or two still remain. I don't know if I can think of a way I could've had more memories, which is the thing childhood (and life) is made of.