February 11, 2006

It was my fortune, good or bad, to have been placed in the blue group. We were in the same classroom all day with the same teacher. The people in the green group spent the first part of the day, before the morning recess, in a separate classroom. We were told it was a cultural thing, that this was all part of a great object lesson, and that we would fully understand the importance of the recent changes only when we were older.

It was a little odd, even to our preadolescent minds. The designations "blue" and "green" seemed purely arbitrary, so we were initially puzzled by the lectures that began almost every school day to the effect that the green people were just as good as we were, that we were no better than green people, that green people were not inferior to us, just different, and that we had to learn to accept those differences so we could all get along in the world. Meanwhile, manifestations of our authentic childish exuberance were often called into question. During arithmetic classes, for example, a blue child might excitedly raise his or her hand, hoping to give the answer to a question of genuine difficulty to the average fifth grade mind, only to be glowered at by the teacher, who might then mutter, "Haven't the blue people been dominating this subject long enough?" before calling on a diffident green child.

In fact, it seemed that the children designated "green" tended to be a bit slower than the "blue" children. The three top students, two girls and a boy, were blue, and the four or five slowest students were green. I'm sure, now that I think about it, that the breakdown was not random, but that efforts were made to obscure the actual basis for the breakdown. After a few weeks, around the same time as when we blue kids began all sitting on the same side of the room so we could all be together for our morning cultural exercises, a certain feeling began to develop. We really didn't discuss it, because we knew such talk would be seriously frowned on, but I think we all began to feel that "blue" was smarter than "green." This was in spite of the fact that a few of the green kids were obviously intelligent, although they tended to have personal interests -- art, music or sports -- which prevented them from being on the top academically in all subjects. Sometimes they were too high-spirited; a few green kids seemed to be bright, but they never did their homework.

Tom was like that. Before the split he had been my best friend. Tom liked to goof off, make smart remarks, play tricks on people and he hated homework. He could sometimes spend just a few minutes on an assignment and it would be good enough for a "C." Sometimes he simply would not do it. He never took it home with him.

Even after the split we hung around with each other for a while. But things got in the way.

"Hey, Allen!" he greeted me one day. "Guess what? They're teaching us self-esteem!"

Looking at the funny smile on his face and the twisted sense of sarcasm in his eyes, all I could say was, "What?"

"Yeah, what I said. Self-esteem! We're learning not to be intimidated by the mythical Great Blue Intellect!"

Had we been in a field of clover, I'm sure he would have rolled around in it laughing. But the teacher on duty overheard and walked up to him in a mean little smokey rage and grabbed his collar and shook him and said, "You know there are things we don't discuss outside of our special classes, don't you?"

Tom nodded meekly.

"This isn't going to happen again, is it?"

"No." said Tom. "I'm sorry."

The teacher pushed him as she let go of his collar. It wasn't hard enough to make him fall down, but he never talked with me during recess after that.

And so, as time went on, old friendships dissolved as new ones were formed. If you were blue, your friends were blue. So were your important enemies. In fact, most playground fights, after a month or so, were green on green or blue on blue.

The first exception was kind of nasty. Jim was your typical elementary school "nerd": academically sound, physically weak, socially insecure. Peter was a "tough kid."

One day the green Peter began following the blue Jim all around the playground, taunting him and challenging him to a fight. Jim finally had enough and turned around and said, "Hey, leave me alone, OK. Go play with your own people!"

Peter flew into a great fury. "'My people?' Just exactly who the hell are you to tell me who to play with! I'll play with whoever I want to play with!" He then punched Jim in the nose a few times, then knocked him down with a solid right cross to the jay and then kicked him in the ribs a few times.

Jim was taken to the Emergency Room and the whole class was called in early from recess. We were marched into the classroom where the teacher stood at one corner, the principal and assistant principal were at the other corners and a police officer stood by the door.

A girl in the class, Debbie, started to whisper something to her friend. The assistant principal grabbed her by the shoulders and said, "You are to remain silent!"

No one said anything after that.

We must have sat in silence for at least fifteen minutes (it seemed like four or five hours) before the teacher said, "What happens on the playground has nothing to do with what happens in class. You are all grown up enough now to understand that. I don't want to hear any of you talking about things that have nothing to do with what we are studying. Does everyone understand?"

All of us, green and blue alike, nodded solemnly.

"I think we can proceed with our lessons, then," the teacher said. She nodded at the other adults in the room, then they left.

A few weeks later, there was another green-blue playground fight which ended when a very well built but slightly dimwitted green child blackened the eye of a blue child and knocked him down. As soon as the teacher on recess duty showed up, the green kid fumed, "He was making fun of my geography project!" For the next few days, we were all told, in joint sessions and in our morning separate sessions, that we should try to figure out the root causes of such rage, and that we blue children might expect to be on the receiving end of more of it if we did not learn to curb our arrogance.

The effect of being continually told not to do something we really never think much about doing anyway can be hard to predict. Even though initially the level of playground violence was about what it had always been -- the occasional black eye, etc. -- the amount of classroom time we spent talking about it seemed to create a weird kind of tension. I even felt it myself. After every sermon on the evils of violence (usually replacing a math or English lesson), I felt like I just wanted to slug someone. But, even at age ten, I was a reserved and moderate sort of person most of the time, so I managed to restrain myself.

My buddy Don, on the other hand, was a hothead. Good old geeky Don. If we had had computers back then, Don would have been a computer freak. But Don was also a moderately good athlete, and the school yard bullies always found softer targets to pick on.

Don (blue) was sweet on Gloria (green). One day Reg (green) was flirtatiously teasing Gloria. Don and Reg got into a fight. With a power punch aimed at Reg's solar plexus, Don knocked the wind out of Reg and walked away.

A half hour after recess, Don was called into the principal's office. We sat in grim silence, terrified by each of the twelve loud paddle whacks, often followed by a stifled groan or two. Don never returned to class, which was just as well because all of our academic work was suspended for the next two weeks while we were given lectures on the evils of violence, the horrors of prejudice, and so on. We watched films about the Holocaust, we read books about the history of lynchings in the South, with all the gory details, all the mutilations, everything. And we were given lessons on understanding difference, on getting along with other people, on conflict resolution and various related topics.

That's how the year ended. We "blue" people were beginning to understand what a bunch of creeps we all were and how unfair we had been to the green kids. The green kids, by that time, had become very well organized so that never again would the blue kids be able to belittle them or take advantage of them.

My parents sent me to a different school the next year, so I missed the famous blue-green playground brawl that had editorialists all over America philosophizing about how an elementary school is just a microcosm of society.

I ran into my old buddy Tom a few years after we both had finished college.

"Wow, this is fantastic," he said, "good old 'blue devil' Allen! Chief demon of King elementary! Bluist to the core! Had to leave to get away from the green people!"

It took me a few seconds to realize he was joking. Then we broke out in that outrageous laughter of our childhood days. Then we looked at each other and embraced and wept a little. Then we said goodbye.

Copyright © 2006

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