Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marble Riot

    The day my teacher lost her marbles 

   Each spring, as if responding to some deep instinct, every boy at Shady Brook Elementary would at once become obsessed with the game of marbles. One week all would be normal, and the next the hallways would ring with the clink and clatter of a couple of hundred pocketfuls of the cats eyes, puries, and steelies as we made our way to class or to lunch or to wherever. There were other occasional fads to distract us: hot wheels, clappers, yoyos. But it was marbles that I remember being the perennial “thing.”
   During recess on those beautiful Carolina afternoons the playground would be sub-divided into various arenas where we grade school gladiators would do battle and claim the spoils. Make no mistake – this wasn’t any modern day, warm and fuzzy, politically correct playground silliness like they practice today with no score being kept. That nonsense wouldn’t fly. No Ma’am, this was cut-throat marbles played for keeps, and a good or lucky player could double his net worth in one afternoon. ( If you had in your possession some especially collectible marble it most likely stayed in your pocket. Only the most bold, talented, or fool hardy of players would risk a precious specimen.)

   This many distracting marbles on the premises always proved to be a source of extreme irritation to our teachers, and so it was to my teacher, Mrs. Gillan. At some point during the spring of my second grade year she established a zero tolerance policy on marbles in her class room. If you had them, they’d better stay in your pocket or book bag while in the room, because if she saw (or heard) a marble it was promptly confiscated – often with extreme prejudice. Mrs. Gillan was a sweet lady, but she didn’t take any crap.
   Given the impulse control of the typical 8 yr old boy, one can imagine that she had a nice collection of marbles in fairly short order. She did. The collected contraband was kept in a softball box (read that: a cardboard box in which a softball had come) in her upper left hand desk drawer. Upon seeing a marble, the miscreant owner was required to march to the front and place the marble in the box himself. Having made the "perp walk" to the front myself a few times, I can tell you that it was a bitter pill. Here you were relinquishing your hard won treasure with no chance for appeal or expectation of return. It was rough justice, and it just didn’t seem right that such a trove should be in the possession of a sexagenarian - a girl sexagenarian- who hadn’t a clue to it’s worth.
   But it seems that nature indeed seeks equilibrium, and this imbalance would soon be reconciled. One afternoon while Mrs Gillan was ranging around the room checking our work, a marble was somehow dropped and bounced its way to mid-room. She collected it and demanded that the owner claim it. When there was no confession despite repeated demands, she walked to her desk, opened the drawer and brought out the softball box. Just as the now well laden container cleared the drawer, its bottom gave way spilling what must have been at least 3 pounds of marbles and scattering them, Big Bang fashion, to the four corners of the room.

   I’ll pause here to savor the memory…

   As with the actual Big Bang, an irresistible force of nature had been unleashed by this event – namely the marble lust of a room full of second graders, and poor Mrs. Gillan was as helpless to stop the subsequent pandemonium as it was possible to be. Instantly a great roar went up that could be heard the length of the hallway. Screams of glee resounded as we all scrambled to stuff our pockets with as many freshly liberated marbles as possible. Desks were upended in the melee, and there was fierce competition among all to reach the best pieces. We were vaguely aware of Mrs. Gillan’s attempts to quell the riot and restore order, but, as I said, this was a force of nature. We were as helpless as she was. Moses may have parted the Red Sea, but I doubt he could have calmed the waters in that room that day.
   After probably 15 seconds things began to calm down. Most of the marbles had by then been collected and hastily pocketed, and order began to be restored. A few of our classmates complied with Ms Gillian's demand that booty be returned and dutifully placed their marbles to the box (the sheep!), but most of us left the room a bit heavier and lot richer that day.
   I’m sure now that Mrs. Gillan and the other teachers probably had a great laugh afterwards. There’s also no doubt in my mind that one or two marbles made their way into some nook or cranny somewhere that day and still wait to be discovered by an eight year old boy with a keen eye and a steady thumb.

    It's now a few weeks after I posted this story, and as I was perusing James Lileks' site I found the following amusing item from a 1930's Minneapolis police blotter:

     An Eastside police squad went to a filling station at Nineteenth and Como when a woman reported boys playing with dice. Apparently she failed to take note of  Spring, police said, for the boys were playing marbles.

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