“Mass Murder” : a Part of How I Know What I Know
My knowing what I know has something to do with things that happened while playing games with other kids – for instance in 5th grade. Dad had already challenged me to figure out what besides intelligence made people tick and I was on a search for the answer when we moved to Northfield, IL. For the first time, I had to deal with a completely new set of classmates and a very different type of game.
Northfield, then a small town, had a wonderful little grade school at which I had about a dozen classmates. My first week there, in late November, was extremely cold. On my initiation day we were sent outside for recess in a driving snowstorm. Our teacher wasn’t foolish enough to join us. There were no windows that allowed us to be seem from inside.
As soon as we were outside, a ball was shoved into my hands and they all yelled “Mass Murder!” This was a game with no rules. All I had to do was get the ball past an imaginary line at either end of a large open area. Kicking, biting, shoving, hitting, throwing (anything), using sticks – and ganging up on one person were all OK.
With almost blinding sleet in my face, the boys and girls in my new class pinned me down on an icy mound and pulled off my mittens, scarf and boots. I took a shot at taunting them, asking if they wanted my socks and coat, too. One of the girls growled: “Better not try to prove how tough you are ‘cuz that’s my gig.” (Well, I doubt she actually used the word “gig” back then, but it’s too perfect for her meaning not to stick it in here.)
She got my respect for staking out her claim and protecting her role. I gave her a knowing look that became “the look” that passed between us many times over the years we played on teams together. It didn’t take us long to figure out that becuz I could run faster, I’d set up plays that took her strengths to finish off. She wasn’t a great student, but nobody beat her when it came to using tools and equipment. (Note to Self: when I get to be captain, Helen’s going to be my first pick for building stuff or playing sports).
As the battle began to rage, I was darting every which way when I noticed another classmate, Valerie, doing a weird thing. She’d left the field to take my stuff, fold it and set it under an overhang as if to keep it clean. OK, I thought, so she’s the neatnik. I knew that type. Mom would have done that, too. Bet her handwriting’s tidy and I’ll be able to get lists for school assignments from her. (Note to Self: Not a recess team member, but will know what we’re supposed to be doing in class. Bet she has all the parts to games tucked in the original box – just the way Mom says they should be.)
Jim wasn’t as physically tough as the other guys. Yet he was in charge in other ways. I sensed he was protecting me, and saw the others back off when he told them told to. I thought then that it was becuz he was the principal’s son, but later became aware he was always negotiating, whether to keep the gung-ho kids from brutalizing me, making us stick to the rules in classroom challenges, or dealing with heated current events debates (another story that should be told).
(Note to Self: Get on Jim’s team whenever possible, even at recess.)
James F Collins, ever the diplomat, became the American ambassador to the Russian Federation at the time of historic changes in our relationship with the USSR. In our 50th high school reunion notes he wrote: “Mine was never the passion for sport, and these (PE) chores were mostly endured with that small sense of envy for those who seemed so natural at this pastime.” I’m sure there are many who’ve had more than a small sense of envy for his strategic instincts.
I was only half frozen and only pretended to be angry when the recess whistle signaled for us to go in. Actually, the game had been physically and mentally exhilarating. We played “Mass Murder” many times that year, usually in teams, but sometimes with different kids in the middle. Those of us who loved the challenge of being “it” never let on.
5th grade “Mass Murder” was one of many games we played with boys and girls having equal roles and with no rules until we found they were necessary. No adult interfered with our learning how to work/play together to accomplish goals. I never figured out whether they stepped back on purpose – or whether they had a viewing place of which we were unaware.
Playing free-for-all games led to my starting a Note-to-Self system. It helped me keep track of patterns I was seeing in peoples’ actions. The notes usually tied to whether I would want someone on my team, and what I would do with them if I got stuck with them any way. By high school the system had materialized into “Little Stories,” and before I graduated from college I was putting those into categories or sets of actions.
I made “Mass Murder” sound cruel and inhumane when I told my three older siblings about it at dinner. It got me more sympathy than I knew I deserved. But, “painfully shy Kathy” found telling the story was a fun way to let Dad know I was working on my secret project. He patted me on the back after dinner and said, “You may be on the right track. But don’t worry your mother. Stop calling the game ‘Mass Murder’.”