Marbles, POGs and Other Life Lessons


February 05, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

It was one of the sadder days of my childhood, and it didn't have anything to do with unrequited love, a lost dog or an execrable report card.

It was the day I lost all my marbles. (Comments of regular readers as to the permanence of that loss are duly noted, but I mean literally and not figuratively.)

I lost them all fair and square, in a series of bare-knuckle contests in the dusty ring of the school playground. The agates and the solid-colored mibs, a couple of cat's eyes and even a pair of "shooters" that were a bit larger than the rest.

It was a real lesson about limiting losses, living for another day and other similar homilies liberally heaped upon youth by all-knowing elders, but wisdom that is appreciated only in first-hand experience.

Did the incident influence my future decisions about life, about risk-taking, for better or for worse? I frankly don't know. I saved my allowance and bought more marbles and re-entered the lists at recess and after school. I probably broke even in the long run, which wasn't much longer because concerns of adolescence, the real stuff of mental turmoil, soon overtook these games.

What I do know is that playing marbles was not considered gambling at my elementary school. Teachers and administration viewed it as optional, acceptable playground recreation.

There was no adult supervision. The rules were generally agreed upon; spectators were there to enforce any appeals of infractions. If your opponent knocked your marbles out of the ring drawn in the dirt, he kept them. That was the objective of the contest, although some occasionally played games that were not "for keeps."

Pitching pennies, winning coins by getting yours to land closest to the wall, was banned as gambling. Whether any old marble cost more than a penny in those days I don't remember, but certainly the desirable ones did. Was playing marbles gambling, a test of skill or simply a harmless childhood diversion divorced from judgmental qualification?

A later generation would play in similar manner with baseball cards, "pitching" them in contests to win opponents' cards. Winners were the closest to the wall or the card covering the most surface area of the competing cards. (My crowd just traded these "bubble gum" cards or put them in the spokes of bicycles to make a motor sound when turning. Their extraordinary future value as collectors' items was unthinkable.)

I raise these remembrances to provide a context for the current controversy in Harford County schools over POGs, cardboard disks with colorful designs and pictures on them that are used in a kind of slap-jack competition. You hit a stack of POGs with a "slammer" card and the player turning over the most disks with a hit wins the tokens. Pretty tame stuff, like marbles and baseball card pitching, it would seem.

Only the costs and stakes of such innocent pastimes, like almost everything else associated with childhood in the '90s, have risen enormously. It is not unusual for a young player to lose $10 or more worth of these paper circles in a single day's extra-curricular activity, teachers say. Stores that stock POGs report brisk sales to youngsters, at 10 cents to 25 cents apiece.

That's enough of a potential economic loss to prompt three Harford County schools to bar them from the grounds as gambling devices. Gambling is prohibited; the games played with POGs are gambling; so no POGs in school.

It's a difficult decision for the schools, which have tried to reason with youngsters about the problems caused by these milk bottle cap-inspired artifacts. Some kids are playing during schooltime, turning cafeterias into rowdy casinos at lunchtime, and are stealing cards from classmates. In some cases, players bet money on the outcome of a game.

But all of these abuses stem from a morality that is independent of POG collector caps; the same kind of things could happen JTC with other childhood toys and possessions. The problem lies with upbringing by parents and schools.

To that end, some schools also ban baseball cards and toys as distractions and liable to easy loss. No expensive jewelry, no beepers, certainly; no drugs or guns or knives, definitely. But no marbles, no jacks, no trading cards? The list could go on and on, as frustrated teachers find more items that children are converting to nefarious use.

Of course, effective enforcement of rules regarding the proper use of these novelties at appropriate places and times is another approach that school authorities could take. But that would require more judgment and more effort on their part.

Banning things seems so much easier for schoolmasters, an involuntary reaction of the profession. Long hair and blue jeans and white socks are among the innocuous items of teen-age tribal dress banned by schools in the past as threats to authority. Passion for POGs, we can safely predict, will soon fade, replaced by a new pre-pubescent fad.

Warning children and parents of problems connected with playthings, and requesting their cooperation is perfectly acceptable. So is prohibiting certain uses of suspect items during school hours.

But simply adding to the list of items banned in school trivializes their importance, undermining student compliance with more serious articles of contraband and inviting violations. We should remember that kids can lose their marbles without lasting harm, even if adults can't.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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