I watched my tall, eight year old Czech American stepdaughter, Ella, tower over other kids her age, playing with possibly our new neighbors’ kids, as we’re looking at buying a house in the neighborhood.
She was happily engaged in a game called “Ga-Ga,” a variant of “Dodge-ball.”
It’s played inside a wooden octagon pit. The playground is located in a part of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where most wouldn’t go in search of a home.
The neighborhood houses “drug dealers,” and they talk of robbery, crack and of hopes that the city will help “clean things up.”
Chatter among the kids included the phrase, “You just got your Skittles burned,” while playing a traditional game of “Dozen.” A game of spoken words, where insults are slung until one gives up, the insults always being voiced without taking the remarks seriously. This is a game supposedly created out of the need to express aggression about the oppressive society the players live.
“Dozen” is a contest of exercising personal power. It also shows verbal and mental toughness. It centers on insults slung at the mothers because of the importance and dominance of the mothers in African American families.
I swung while listening.
“Your Mama wears combat boots,” was a phrase I remember as a kid, but there was no mention of combat boots, but rather, of Skittles being burnt and discussion on whether Skittles truly could be burnt or not.
I watched nearby, while swinging, as Ella, named after the great Ella Fitzgerald, was welcomed into her new circle of friends, as if she had known them all her life. They switched from the Ga-Ga pit to the metal mountain where they climbed on top for the game of Dozen, to the swings and finally to a shady spot on a bench under an old Maple, talking about what kids from ages 5-10 talk about.
It never ceases to amaze me how kids quickly accept others into their fold.
A very tall for her age African American girl, 10 years old, bonded quickly to my nearly equal in height Ella. She was very sensitive to her being from Europe and said, “You know you have to tell us all about Europe, don’t you?”
My daughter smiled and answered, “Sure. OK,” shrugging her shoulders as if to add, “It’s no big deal, really,” but didn’t say that because she, too, was sensitive to her new friends distance in knowing of Europe, let alone Czechoslovakia, as so many still refer to it, rather than the Czech Republic.
Her new friend invited her over to her birthday/slumber party in a week. We accepted the invitation to the party. She’s looking forward to cake and ice cream. And they all agreed that none of them like chocolate.
It amazed me, as I watched the kids play, how unaware and also very aware of their differences they were, how easily and ready they were to embrace one another, “the new kid on the block,” as if they knew Ella for much longer than just the couple hours which they played. What astounds me more is how easy it is for kids to live completely in the moment. Kids are our true yogis, embracing the moment, not thinking too far ahead, or lingering too far behind in time, always living in the now.
As the soon to-be birthday girl tells us the time her party is to begin, she hops on her bike, ready to go home to her apartment, where the said “drug dealers” live. She was responding to her Mother’s call to come home and left quickly after smiling brightly at Ella, me and all the other kids, before grabbing her bike, saying good-bye and pedaling away.
We’ve made an offer to buy the house in this “seedy” part of Kalamazoo, where a small girl that played with Ella and the others and I share the same name, same spelling, and we agreed that having two “Krista’s” on the same block would be fun.
As we left our possible new neighborhood, I already felt at home; and as I watched all the kids run, jump, climb, swing and hop away from being tagged by the ball, I listened to their rounds of benign Dozen, a game Ella now knows—one she can take back to Prague with her, a game she learned in a playground behind the strip of houses where she might call her home in America one day.
Ella is excited about having the opportunity to ride her bike in the neighborhood with other kids, something she can’t do in Prague. She sees this as being the selling point of the house. She also hopes to know the All-American kid experience of playing in other kids houses on the same street and to having a playground in the communal backyard on the church property behind all our houses.
This is our hopeful new neighborhood where one of our possible new neighbors said is a “beautiful place to live at Christmas” because church bells can be heard so clearly.
Children are indeed our greatest teachers. They teach us to openly embrace one another, to share stories, games, to delight in our differences and to teach one another about our differences, so that we come to better understand one another and stand with one another with a greater sense of community. These lessons are found on all our playgrounds, in all our neighborhoods, no matter what part of town or in what country we may reside.
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Assist. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Sara Crolick