by B. T. Smith
In the years of my innocent youth, the playground was covered in pebbles. Not soft mulch, or the springy remains of rubber tires. Bare dirt or grass would have been better. But instead, from kindergarten to fifth grade, we played amongst the stones.
It was no secret back then that the best view on the playground lied at the top of the jungle gym. The gym was shaped like a castle, only instead of being made of brick and mortar, it was a series of intricate iron bars and joints. There were also slides here and there. One was at the front gate and was straight and wide, like a drawbridge. Only the little kids went on it. For the third and fourth graders, there was a looping slide that went down one of the corner towers. You had to shimmy along the parapets of monkey bars to get to it. Above that one, was another slide that ran through the entire castle. To get to it, not only did you have to climb past the drawbridge, and shimmy along the parapets, but you also had to swing yourself up into the small chamber where it started. This chamber lied at the top of the gym and the fifth graders called it the throne room. They were the only ones allowed there.
Yet, if you were nimble enough and had the strength, you could rise above the throne room and perch yourself on its roof. From there, you couldn’t climb any higher, nor would you really want to. For as long as the gym has stood, it is said to carry a legend, that only one person from the entire school can climb to its peak. A lie, no doubt. Yet, I didn’t have much room to question it. For as I sat on the roof of the throne room, feeling the wind shove me on every angle, I stared down on my classmates below. None of them dared to join me. Here I came every day, at every recess, and I stared down at them like an all-seeing crow.
I have said before, and so I shall say again, you could see everything that happened on the playground from this height. So, I found my new hobby. Some people watch birds, others television. I, however, spent my days gazing on the innocent play of my peers as their silent spectator. From here, I learned about the nature of childhood innocence.
On one corner of the playground, there was a set of monkey bars. No one really climbed them except for the kindergarteners. Anyone older, and their feet would drag against the ground. But that didn’t stop the first graders from snooping around there. One thing that I learned quickly about their culture was a game that was played in upmost secrecy. At the height of recess, when the monkey bars were full with a line of five-year-old girls and boys, the first graders would sneak up closely and each of them would scoop up a handful of pebbles. Then, like a shooting range at a carnival, they would take turns pelting their younger peers with stones. Get one to fall, you score one point. Get one to cry, and you score five.
On the opposite end of the playground, where the pebbles became scarce and turned into the hot asphalt of the school parking lot, second and third graders were playing a myriad of other games. The girls spent most of their time playing hopscotch. They would pick the largest, brightest, and smoothest stone on the playground. Then, after they chalked out the squares, they would toss the stone and chant out whatever tune they had come up with that morning. Many of the songs were about other girls, and none of them were friendly.
The boys did not do much other than stare at them. “They were getting to that age,” the teachers would say. But most of us have seen how adults show each other affection. We have all perhaps seen our parents or guardians kiss, or even hug at least once in our lives. Yet these boys must have missed that lesson, and I watched as the smallest second grader among them strolled up behind the tallest third-grade girl he could find. Without warning, he latched onto her ponytail and yanked as if he were ringing the bells for Sunday Mass. She was certainly loud like a bell, and when she turned on him, the entire playground shook with the loudest slap that has ever been heard and will never sound again. The boy went back to his friends, a sheepish grin curling around the red hand mark on his cheek. The girl, however, was sent to the principal’s office, while her friends began to sing about her.
Then there were the swing sets that stood on either side of the jungle gym castle. Ironically, the swings were never used, but they were a popular gathering spot for the fourth graders where they could swap rumors for cigarettes that they stole from their dads. Their conversations never interested me much, mostly due to the monotony of them. A cigarette would pass, and the fourth graders would place bets on whose dad could beat up who. Another cigarette would pass, and one boy would boast of their night with the other’s mother. Fists would fly, the traded cigarettes would be crushed, and pebbles would be chucked at each other’s eyes until they all tired themselves out and repeated the ritual again.
Then there were the fifth graders, the kings and queens of the school. Never did they let anyone into their throne room, and no one dared to storm the castle or lead a coup against them. Quite frankly, I was lucky to be able to sit on the roof above them for so long. I sat there every day for five years, and not a soul joined me. Yet, I still remember the one day that someone tried. It was a kindergartner, only that much I knew, and it was only because of their height. I never knew their name, and I never saw their faces. They wore a bright white raincoat with the hood pulled over their head. As I looked down from my high tower, I watched as this young child walked past the drawbridge slide and shimmied their way to the corner tower. That alone earned my respect, but they didn’t stop there. They scaled the high tower, moving beyond the fourth graders, and approached the castle’s peak. At this point, everyone on the playground had stopped to stare. Higher and higher they climbed, and quickly I saw that whoever this was, they weren’t climbing to the throne. They were climbing higher than that; to me. In the sight of all, two were to stand at the top of the jungle gym, and for the first time I would have a friend to sit with me upon this lofty height. Overjoyed, I leaned over the edge, and I let out my hand. They reached out theirs, and our fingertips touched.
Then in an instant they were gone. I watched as their legs buckled and fell away. One of the fifth graders stood at the entrance of the throne room, poised, smiling. A corner of the raincoat tore in his giant hand, and the rest of it fell to the stones below. Everyone heard the crunch, and it didn’t take long for the teachers to rush in and carry them to the nurse’s office. All you could hear was the kindergartner’s sobbing as they held their misshapen hand.
The jungle gym would not stay up much longer. By next fall, it would be gone, with only the swing sets left behind. I still think about that day, every now and then. The days of childhood innocence would go on, and nobody but me would think about the white-coated stranger. I bought the remnant of their coat from the fifth grader that shoved them, and I still pull it out now and again, wondering what happened to them. Yet one thought comes to mind when I reflect on the days of childhood innocence: that it is said, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
In my day, all the kids played with rocks.
B. T. Smith has always had a love for storytelling, especially how it can be used to instruct and edify society. Since youth, B. T. Smith knew that he wanted to tell stories, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he finally began to write them. His novels and short stories are always instructed by his faith, and driven by the desire to better know God, and to bring others to knowledge of Him.