In a school playground somewhere in the United States, a terrible and entirely preventable tragedy occurs.
A ten-year-old boy, already known for his recklessness and lack of foresight, stands perilously upon the top of a slide. He looks over to a group of girls and waves both arms, ensuring that they are watching his antics. They are. They pretend to mock his foolishness but nevertheless give him their full attention and ignore the boys playing more sensibly down below.
And then – no one knows quite how – he teeters. He trips. The boy falls, headlong, five feet to the ground. He has time to bend his legs slightly to soften the blow, saving himself from death or permanent disability. However, one of his legs hurts terribly and shows a horrifying bulge. It is broken.
The nurse, quickly notified, rushes to the scene. She administers first aid with the help of other teachers, who interrogate witnesses as soon as they are able. The boy is taken to hospital and will not return for several weeks.
The district conducts a full inquiry. It is found that the supervising teacher looked away from approximately fifteen seconds, allowing the accident to occur. She is disciplined but does not lose her job. The school dutifully pays the boy’s family for his treatment and distress. This is covered by the school’s insurance. The offending play equipment is taped off and, eventually, deconstructed.
Further meetings take place. The school is denounced. Many parents are angry, claiming that the school is developing a reputation for being dangerous. There was another injury, a sprained ankle, on the very same slide last year. There is general agreement that the school needs a thorough review of all aspects of its Safety Policy.
Other play equipment is taped off. Teachers are assigned to monitor halls where children used to spend several minutes unsupervised as they moved between classes. Finally, the whole concept of ‘recess’ is questioned, and revised.
A committee agrees that recess, even supervised, is a free-for-all where students regularly injure themselves, bicker about the rules of games, and where bullying, even if it is of the subtle, name-calling or exclusionary types, is an ever-present risk. The school board decides to complement recess with simultaneous, structured activities.
Teachers, who grudgingly take on extra responsibilities in what had been their prep time, organize safe games and activities for the children. Teams are chosen by lot, or by the teacher. Usually there are no teams, the games being non-competitive in nature. The children who participate, mostly the less popular individuals who have trouble relating to their peers in unstructured circumstances, get some badly needed exercise, although it is the children who choose to play their own games of tag and soccer who return to the classroom the sweatiest.
Upon review, the school board finds that the children participating in structured activities have suffered far fewer injuries than those choosing their own, unstructured activities. Inevitably, it is decided that all children will henceforth be required to participate in the teacher-led games, with other activities now prohibited.
The following year, into this world enters a first-grade boy named Peter. Peter has a quiet and eccentric nature. He has trouble making friends and working cooperatively with others. He is not particularly sporty. For Peter, the structured activities are a boon. Freed of the necessity of unmediated interaction with his fellows, he avoids conflicts and always has something to do at break time. If he had entered the school several years ago he may, on occasions, have found himself one of the unfortunate children sitting on his own, or storming off in tears after unfairly losing a game. However, in the new environment, his elementary school career is without fights, bullying, injuries or exclusion.
Fast forward twenty years. Peter, astonished at his own daring, has joined the Peace Corp. Fresh out of college, he finds himself, the only Westerner, riding a bus through the jungle in rural Ecuador. The driver is a maniac. He takes hairpin turns with foolish abandon. Around one corner the bus is confronted with a small truck coming at high speed in the opposite direction. The bus driver attempts to swerve out of the way and overcorrects, sending the bus hurtling down a steep hillside, turning onto its side before coming to a rest. Peter sees only a blur of green, then black.
Some time later Peter becomes aware of the screaming of his neighbors. Opening his eyes he sees that many of them have serious injuries. Most of them are old ladies. They lay where they landed, making no attempt to move, praying loudly to God. Peter finds that he has an agonizing bump on his head and a sprained wrist but is otherwise unharmed. Peter notices a couple of older men who are also relatively uninjured, but who are looking about themselves in a daze. He looks up. He sees a window that can be opened in an emergency, though it is high above him.
Peter needs to rescue himself. He needs to organize the other able-bodied survivors to extract the injured, administer first aid and seek help. His academic knowledge of Spanish might just be good enough for him to take on this role. Given his youth and health, he might have to take the lead. Will he have the confidence and social skills to communicate effectively with others, and to deal with disagreements as they arise? Will he have the confidence in his own physicality to escape the vehicle, or to help others to do so, even while coping with his own pain? Will he have the presence of mind to decide how best to seek help, even under these stressful conditions?
But what’s that got to do with recess.
Next: Abnormal Life
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