Ball Over the Fence


Like every school in the world, my playground was unkind to those who lost the ball. In the younger years this was a daily tragedy, as reliable a fixture of recess as hair pulling and the bell. The oval space afforded to K-2 was proportionate to our size, it was a dinky, unimpressive patch of grass swarming with scores of manic children - each with their own point to prove. We were enclosed by a two-foot high metal wire fence, the kind that rusted easily and swayed in stiff breezes. The teachers told us not to sit on it or touch it or look at it for too long. And even though any one of us could comfortably scale it or smash it to bits, that flimsy metal fence was our Everest.

We were between the ages of six and eight, and we were as dumb as monkey bars. The metal fence was the only firm border on the bottom oval, the only fixed target, and at some point someone decided it should be the goal. K-2 aren’t really sentient enough to form “teams” in the traditional sense and, even if we managed to divide into two distinct groups instead a network of three-person-alliances, there was still only one thing to shoot at. Add a sprinkle of wanting to be the best at everything and a dollop of seven-year-old coordination and you don’t need to do Maths Olympiad to solve the puzzle. We lost the ball every day. We actually lost the ball nearly every time there was a shot.

I’m not sure whose decision it was to play with one of those soft, bouncy balls or why it was so taboo to be goalkeeper, but the two-foot-high fence was extremely undefended. The ball would rocket past it, bounce into a council-owned patch of grass across the path and wait patiently to be rescued.

To jump over the fence without permission between the ages of six and eight was to soak the universe in anarchy. Simply retrieving the ball would be to acknowledge that the boundaries of the playground were arbitrary, that "authority" was an irrational impediment to individual liberties designed to perpetuate its own power, and that the journey to absolute emancipation from the justice system and, by extension, all social constructs and oppressive institutions was a simple climb over a two foot high piece of flimsy metal. Kids who just jumped over and got the ball were blacklisted by the rest of the playground, labelled as nihilists deserving of comeuppance, and were accordingly tattled on at the first opportunity.

The proper procedure is as follows. Once the ball is kicked over the fence, everybody rushes to the boundary and attempts to reach the ball with long sticks or the power of the mind. Then the wayward kicker is yelled at and abused, often to the point of tears. The mob waits, impatiently, for a member of the general public to walk by and become a hero. Failing that, the fastest runners are sent to the supervising teacher, who is invariably tending to a maimed child by the swings. Said teacher is dragged to the fence. Permission to retrieve the ball is asked for by everyone at the same time, and a good deal of brown nosing and desperately straight-armed attention seeking takes place. Some lucky nerd gets picked to go, and they sprint to the ball as if running on fire. He or she then kicks it back, always missing the first attempt so as to milk a few more exhilarating minutes on the outside. They eventually return it properly and have a dangerously fast beating heart for the remainder of the day. Play resumes and the teacher must rush to another medical emergency by the swings (they really brought nothing but trouble). The ball is inevitably hoofed over the fence again. Repeat.

Years 4-6 played ball on the top oval. The older kids were given two big grey metal goals to aim at. One was directly in front of the staff room windows and the other was pressed up against the same metal wiry fence. The top oval was further up a steep hill than the bottom oval, though there was no council-owned oasis on the other side of the path. The metre-wide public path acted like a moat that divided the school and the big wooden fence of the neighbouring retirement village. It was at least three metres tall. At least I think; I was very short at the time.

Years 4-6 are, in many ways, less forgiving than K-2. If you lose the ball, you must go and get it. Though taller and bigger brained than Kindergarteners, we still lost the ball almost every day.

There were two problems with skying a shot on the top oval. First, gravity was working against you. The concrete path ran right down the edge of the school, past the bottom oval and onto the road on a pretty major incline. If you cleared the fence and the ball started snowballing an immediate decision had to be made. Ten-year-old courage became time-sensitive - there wasn’t any spare seconds to look around for the teacher, you simply had to go. This was very challenging. The second concern was that, if you cleared the big wooden fence of the retirement village, your life was over. That ball was gone.

Most kids were conservative when firing at this goal, making sure to get their head over the ball and to not follow through too zealously. Obviously I never had the guts to shoot.

I remember vividly the recess that Blake H. skied one well over the bar. It went over the big wooden fence in slow motion and thumped into the side of one of the retirement homes. We thought it was curtains, and let him know as much. But he didn’t heed the jeers or tears or cries of “Oh what’d you do that for, Blake! I got that ball for my birthday!” He just walked, cool as jazz flutes (?!), to the two-foot high wiry metal fence. He literally hurdled it without any assistance from his hands. I gasped. Others screamed. “How did he do that?” I wondered. The kid kept walking right up to the big wooden fence, the one I thought to be three metres high, and used the horizontal slats to scale it like a goofy ladder. I could not comprehend that level of courage or acrobatics. Blake kicked the ball back but he did not return for some time. The weaker-willed among us thought the tension and danger must have killed him. But finally he emerged, via a gate in the fence (!!!), and waltzed back in to the land of the living. He hurdled the flimsy metal again and played on.

I walk by the metre-wide public path beside the school most days on my way to the train station. A big, black metal fence surrounds my old playground, the kind you see around all schools these days. There are ugly little spearheads on top of each pole, sharp enough to deter courage and acrobatics. The fence is so high they’d hardly ever clear it. I wonder how they fill the time.