My daughter Sue, who is a second-grade teacher, tells me that kids today are absolutely forbidden to take part in snowball fights at school. That’s probably a good thing, but that rule was certainly not in place when I attended our one-room country school. Snowball fights were as common as playing fox and geese, or sliding downhill on our sleds.
Those winters of my childhood in central Wisconsin were blessed with lots of snow, and plenty of opportunity for winter activities. By mid-winter, my fellow students and I at the Chain O ’Lake one-room country school grew a bit tired of snowstorm after snowstorm. It seemed almost every week a new storm arrived, dropping 2, 3 or more inches of the white stuff.
Each new snowfall meant a student had to shovel paths to the outhouses, to the pump house and woodshed, to the mailbox nailed on a post along the country road, and to the flag pole so we could continue our flag-raising ceremony each morning. The flag pole ceremony was only interrupted when the temperature dipped below zero, and even then, the youngster who had received the great honor of putting up the flag each day continued to do so. On those frigid days, the rest of us stayed inside the schoolhouse and pledged our allegiance to the flag while we stood at our desks, and we huddled around the woodstove, shivering and trying to get warm.
During recess, we continued playing fox and geese, and when we grew bored with that, and if the temperature was such that we could pack the snow, we made gigantic snow forts. Sometimes we merely decided that flinging snowballs at each other was sufficiently interesting that we spent an entire recess doing that. There were the usual disagreements of course, resulting from someone failing to adhere to the rules of snowball engagement that included not hitting a fellow student in the head. This did happen on occasion, sometimes by accident — not everyone was an accurate snowball flinger — but often on purpose because not all the kids got along with each other. A nicely packed snowball to the head seemed a practical way of settling some disagreement that may have occurred a few days or even weeks previously.
Of course the student hit in the head with a big snowball usually wailed loudly and let everyone know that the snowball thrower had broken the first rule of civil snowball throwing. One of two things happened. If the majority of the students knew about the earlier disagreement and believed that the victim of the snowball to the head had it coming, they merely looked the other way. But if the majority of the students sided with the victim, who usually was an above-average actor alluding to injury that was many times greater than the reality of snow trickling down his neck, they grabbed the snowball thrower and washed his face with snow. At this point, our teacher usually appeared on the scene. She grabbed both the snowball thrower and the snowball receiver and marched them into the schoolhouse with harsh words for each, and no more recess or noontimes outdoors for the rest of the week.
I learned something important about rules and punishment as the result of a simple (or so it seemed) snowball fight. There are rules to be followed, whether written or not, and there are consequences if they are not followed. One level of punishment was meted out by your peers, as they quickly judged who was in the wrong and took appropriate action. But that was only the beginning of the punishment, for a greater force usually loomed over incident. The school teacher who always, never an exception, had the last word. Usually she didn’t spend much time trying to untangle who was right and who was wrong, it was far easier to punish both culprits. This of course provided a powerful example to the other students who may have considered settling some sort of longstanding unhappiness with another student during a snowball fight.
But the teacher didn’t always see everything that went on, although most of us believed that she had eyes on both sides of her head, and saw far more than any normal person could see.
Excerpted from Jerry’s book, “The Quiet Season: Remembering Country Winters.” Go to www.jerryapps.com to learn more about Jerry’s work.