In elementary school, I wasn’t just a typical little kid. More like, I was a runt. Had I been a character in Charlotte’s Web, I would definitely have been the baby piglet Wilbur, saved from the axe by Fern. I was truly runt-like.
The little kids have it rough in elementary school. They are usually treated like babies, picked up and carried around. Or they are those kids who have to be in the front row of the class pictures. And even if “door holder” is a weekly chore for the students, the little kids rarely get to hold the door open for the rest of the class because the doors are so heavy that the little kids struggle to keep them open. In these ways I had it rough in elementary school.
But it was on the playground where my survival as the littlest kid was truly tested.
When you’re the little kid, you just don’t often get to be a kickball captain on the playground. Generally, the kickball captains are the ones who are the most popular kids and they are the most popular kids because they excel at things like kickball and they excel at things like kickball because they are bigger than the runty kids, whose little pretzel-stick legs can’t kick the ball very far. I was never a kickball captain; I was a pretzel-stick-legged kickball star player wannabe.
The captains would stand in front of the mass of kids wanting to play kickball, anywhere from between 1,000 to a gazillion kids, it seemed. They would survey the group and decide how best to divvy up the mass into two teams. Definitely, the kids picked first would be the strongest players or at least the “cool kids” and they would always be called specifically by name:
“We got Rodney.”
“Okay, we’ll take Michael.”
“Duane, we have you.”
The first picks were almost always boys. Which didn’t bode well for either the girls destined to become athletes or the runty girls.
There was a level of secrecy involved in this first round of picking. Those-who-are-picked-first would stand behind their respective captains, quickly turn to secret mode, and whisper in the ears of their captains which players needed to be picked next.
All the while recess time is ticking away. Meaning, team formation was tightly pressed to divide and play within the allotted 20-minute student recess.
After the first group of all-star boy kickball players had been selected, the second-tier players would get selected. The second tier players weren’t called by name: “We’ll take you.”
“We got you.”
“You—with the blue shorts.”
Most of the kids were in the no-name tier of players.
I was part of the third tier of players. And usually, there were only about three players in this tier. They weren’t chosen by name. They weren’t referred to as “you—with the blue shorts.” They were just pointed to. And the final player left standing wasn’t even pointed to. I would just walk to my team and stand last in line, knowing full well that I would never have the chance to actually kick the ball before recess was over.
The truly remarkable thing about kickball during recess and the rules that governed our play and, more specifically, about being the last one (sorta) picked is that it was always fun. I didn’t care that I was the last one picked. I didn’t care that the kickball captains didn’t call me by name to be on their team. Because when I was eight, that stuff didn’t matter at all. I was really little but I was still a part of something really big. And that was enough.
In the Composition I classrooms where I meet students at the beginning of every semester, it matters to them if they are chosen and picked to be a member of a group, if they are sought after to work on a group project with their peers. They come into the classroom—many of whom are first-generation college students—unsure, insecure, voiceless. And the classroom environment needs to be one wherein students can learn confidence, security, articulation.
So when it’s time to break into groups, choose partners, I tell the students about my kickball recess experience. And I encourage them that in our classroom space, choose not to play kickball like the kickball captains from my elementary days did, picking only those who outwardly portrayed the characteristics of “winner” or “best.” Instead, look to anyone in the classroom as someone who is ready and willing and able to play. And as their teammate, relish the gift you have in that person who you are lucky enough to have on your team.