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Domestic Bliss

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I live down the alley from an elementary school, and on the rare days when I'm at home and school is in session, I can sometimes hear the sing-song rhythm of little girls playing hand-slapping games over the general roar of the playground. Their rhymes, I imagine, are variations on the same ones we sang on the playground of T.C. Cherry Elementary School back in Kentucky in the early 1960s.

Playmate, come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree

Slide down my rain barrel

Climb down my cellar door

And we'll be jolly friends

Forevermore and more and more.

Playmate, I cannot play with you

My dolly's got the flu

Boo hoo boo hoo boo hoo

Ain't got no rain barrel

Ain't got no cellar door

But we'll be jolly friends

Forever more.

The rhythm was the thing; that and coordinating upside down and sideways slaps with the regular palm-to-palm pats. But the rhymes were fascinating in their own right. What was a rain barrel, I wondered, and how could you slide down one? I had seen a cellar door in The Wizard of Oz, and the idea of ducking into the cool, dark underground with a treasured friend was seductive.

Boys corrupted the rhymes with sadistic twists:

Playmate, come out and play with me

And bring your tommy guns three

Climb up my poison tree

Drown in my rain barrel

Fall down my cellar door

And we'll be enemies

Forever more, more, more, more, more.

Even better known, and still around, are the chiding, derisive, rhyming taunts of children that can still be heard on most elementary school playgrounds:

Fatty, fatty, two-by-four/ Can't get through the bathroom door

or

Baby, baby, suck your thumb/ Wash your face in bubblegum

Or the perennial favorite of tomboys and bullies across the world:

I see London, I see France, I see ______'s underpants

These taunts enabled us to express hostility in a safe, shared language. Someone who didn't appreciate the value of a good insult inevitably got her feelings hurt, and comfort usually came swiftly. We were often cruel with rhymes, unintentionally but surely. I remember a kid in our neighborhood who was always chosen first at kickball or football just because of his unusual size. Unblinkingly, we called him "Louie, douie, football head" and made hideous rhymes with that nickname. We wouldn't have hurt him for the world, but the instinctive need to hurl insults in rhyme urged us on.

Best of all were the rhymes aimed at the institution that chained and entrapped children daily -- the school. They were taunted tongue-in-cheek, and they gave us a sense of power. We felt bad and in control, shouting as loud as we could within hearing distance of the teacher:

Tra-la-la boom de-ay

We've got no school today

The teacher passed away

We threw her in the bay...

My three sons, who were well-instructed in the way of "Great big gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts/ Itty bitty birdie's feet/ Mutilated monkey meat" say they never heard some of these playground classics.

I asked them the other day if they'd heard this one, familiar to anyone who went to school in the U.S. between 1960 and 1970:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school

We have tortured every teacher, we have broken every rule

We have stood in every corner, we have stood in every hall

We're the meanest brats of all.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Teacher hit me with a ruler

I knocked her in the bean with a rotten tangerine

And her teeth came marching out.

Their eyes alight, they wanted to learn the words, thought they are well past the stage of playground rhymes. Their rhymes come now from snazzy television ads; they tout slogans that sell sleek cars, high-tech shoes and fast food. But this notion of songs that put it to the school intrigued them.

I remembered one I wasn't sure I wanted them to know, given the current political climate and the oddly scary place that school has become:

Hi ho, hi ho

It's off to school we go

With razor blades and hand grenades

Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho

Hi ho, hi ho

The teacher bit my toe

I bit her back, that dirty rat

Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho...

Kids can only learn these songs and rhymes from other kids, and the need them more now, it seems, than ever before. Better a derisive rhyme than an act of overt violence enacted out of frustration and unspoken rage. This is the vocabulary of subversiveness in its safest form -- and I fear, in our politically correct time, it is being slowly snuffed out.[p]

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