A Lesson in the Cards

When Pokemon invaded Rock Hall Middle School, one teacher used the trading mania as a teaching tool.

November 11, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

ROCK HALL -- By most accounts, the trouble started when school opened.

Some say the new kid in sixth grade was to blame, but others trace the origin to one of their own, a seventh-grader spotted with symptoms during the summer.

Either way, 173 students at Rock Hall Middle School didn't stand a chance.

You might think the Chesapeake would have kept the Pokemon craze on the busier side of the bay, but with a movie this week, with Christmas next month, with stuffed animals, Game Boys, Halloween costumes, children's jewelry, TV cartoons -- and now with Burger King in on the campaign -- no place is safe. Not even the Eastern Shore.

Goodness knows this town did its best. For the longest time, you couldn't buy the Japanese cards anywhere in Rock Hall except at a Short Stop out on the main road. You had to drive 12 miles up Route 20 to the Eckerd in Chestertown just for variety.

But then, barely one month into school, the cards were suddenly everywhere -- and causing problems -- so the principal banned them.

And that's how it happened. In one school that sent Pokemon packing, a class of sixth graders learned something about life.

Just days after school opened, the fad had spread through Mr. Hynson's Language Arts class, as welcome as a winter virus.

Vincent Hynson had never seen anything like the swarm of boys around the new kid's desk. They were as thick as bees. At the center was Joseph Evans and his amazing Pokemon card collection.

Spread open on his desk was a binder. Page after page depicted animated characters from a 7 a.m. cartoon show. Joseph comes from Worton, a town smaller than Rock Hall (population 1,600), but Joseph's dad had taken him to the mall in Dover, Del., 45 minutes away.

Some of the Rock Hall boys had seen the TV show, but few had seen the trading cards. The characters had foreign-sounding names like Pikachu, Magmar and Charizard, and each had mythical powers to use in battle. The Rock Hall girls could not care less, but Joseph's collection impressed the boys.

Eleven-year-old Michael Burgess asked his mom to take him to a comic book store in Chestertown where they sold cards. He asked his big sister, going to Annapolis to shop for a formal dress, to buy him a pack. To pay for them, he offered to mow grass.

He wasn't alone. More cards surfaced in Mr. Hynson's homeroom, down the hall in math, around the corner in science. Principal Rondi Howell saw them for the first time in the cafeteria, when boys bolted from one table to another, trading cards.

Soon, kids were trading on the bus, in the hall, outside gym. They traded in front of the grocery store until a policeman pulled over. They traded on the porch of a gourmet store that caters to tourists. They traded during circle time, when they were supposed to be defining words.

Harvey Brown was trading when Bus No. 21 closed the door without him. "Harvey!" teachers yelled. "Come on!" The bus pulled away. Harvey finally caught it, as it turned onto Sharp Street, but not until the deal was done.

Across the Bay Bridge came news of trades turned bad.

Parents in California filed a lawsuit claiming the cards amount to illegal gambling. Parents in New York agreed. In other states, parents complained of little kids swindled by older kids, of children stealing cards from one another, of fist fights and hurt feelings. In Canada, a 14-year-old would stab another because of a sour trade.

Back in Rock Hall, boys blew their birthday money on booster packs. Two brothers traded in the Super Fresh, and one cried in the spaghetti aisle. One boy struck another with a stick after a bad trade.

Mrs. Howell was driving to work one morning when the radio informed her that Harford County schools had enacted a Pokemon ban. The principal has seen her share of fads: POGs, Giga pets, Beanie Babies. But never had one caused such a ruckus. Teachers were complaining, and she was beginning to think Rock Hall had a Pokemon problem, too. And it did.

The argument began on the bus.

Nick Crew says he was showing his cards to a friend when Littleton Fassett stole one named Abra. Littleton says that just isn't so.

Littleton is 11 years old, all elbows, knees and size 8 feet. Nick is also 11, but smaller.

The argument heated up again in the music room. Littleton and Nick disagreed over a card named Weedle, so Littleton jumped out of his seat and into Nick's face, ready to punch him. When he sat down, it was too late. The teacher told the guidance counselor. The guidance counselor told the principal. The boys were at their lockers, getting ready for gym, when Mrs. Howell announced the ban.

The Rock Hall boys found the habit hard to break.

Joseph Evans, the new kid, had cards confiscated a few days later. Michael Burgess went underground, making trades in the bathroom.

Nick stuffed his cards in the slits in his locker door, and Mr. Hynson caught Littleton swapping cards in the parking lot one day last week.

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