Look up “recess” in a dictionary and you’ll likely get something like this: “A temporary cessation of the customary activities of an engagement, occupation, or pursuit.” Walk past an elementary school and when it is time for recess you will see kids swarm from the classrooms and onto the playground. It seems so simple…
Looking back I can see how recess was so much more than that. Recess is where you made your social connections, both good and bad. Whether you were getting beaten up, playing with friends, or trying to tease that cute girl just so she would notice you, recess was where your true learning was taking place. Recess is where you were establishing your pecking order, recess is where you were developing your reputation, recess is where school transcended math, spelling, art, and the other subjects teachers were trying to cram into your head.
I remember my last recess. It was the Spring of ’84 and I was ending my second year at John Davidson School in Coaldale. John Davidson was a pure elementary school, so being in Grade Six meant we were the big people on campus — as it were. We could look down our noses at all the other grades. No one would mess with us.
The next year we would be back in R.I. Baker which was a mixed elementary/junior high school. We weren’t going to be the dominant kids anymore — in fact, we would be the youngest and the smallest kids occupying the east wing.
Something even more daunting was the lack of recess. There would be no more 20 minute breaks twice a day to interrupt the monotony. Sure, there would be short breaks for class changes, but there would be no more recess.
I remember how, even at the time, I felt something was being left behind forever. I remember that last recess. I wandered around the playground, watching my friends and classmates on the swings and the monkeybars. I remember trying to capture the memory, trying to gobble it up in my mind to file away for later years. I wanted to bottle the feeling, to sock it away and guard it judiciously, to keep it for a time later in my life when I would be able to appreciate it in its proper context.
**Not my photo — it’s linked to someone else’s Flickr account.
It turns out that recess *was* as symbolic as I thought, it’s just that it took more than two decades for me to realize it. It represented transition. Not just an age thing, but a transition from being the top of the heap to being someone starting over. In our lives we are faced with these sorts of situations all the time — just when you think you’re at the top of your game someone will come along and knock you down. Just when you think you have it all figured out life will throw you a curve and make you start over. When you think you have something conquered a new challenge will emerge.
If asked to list the major milestones of your life, your list will likely mirror that of most people: first day of school, getting a driver’s license, graduation, marriage, kids, retirement. You’ll have to forgive me if I choose to add that last recess to my list.