My elementary school had this weird idea to promote exercise. Every spring they would mow the lawn to make a ring in the field, and the kids were supposed to run around it like a track. Every recess, you were “supposed to” run the track, and they even put a member of the staff on the side, counting how many times you went around. If you got around the track twenty-some times, then you’d get a really mediocre prize.
I don’t know why, but when that track got mowed into the field, my entire school went goddamn crazy.
And that was recess for the rest of the year. Maybe you run around the track as fast as you can, maybe you walk around and chat with your friends while you go, maybe you walk all by yourself because you actually wanted to play tetherball, but all of your friends are running around a stupid track and won’t play with you.
How did my school manage to convince kids to give up their recess time for running around a track? Everything that I know about children says that this shouldn’t work. So why was it so successful?
I’m hesitant to say that it was the prizes, because all that we would get is little foot-shaped trinkets to put on the key chains that children don’t have. Once a kid had earned more than two foot trinkets, they’d usually pester their parents for a key chain and have the feet hanging off of their backpacks like trophies.
There’s the catch. That’s what made the track so popular. Kids were flaunting their prizes. It was a competition. Some kids would only have the green foot-shaped trinket, which they got after, like, twenty-five laps. Some kids had the green and the red, after running fifty laps. Some kids had the green, the red, the blue, the yellow, the purple… The teachers had created a ranking system.
And there was one trinket that was only mentioned in whispers. After you had gotten through the entire color spectrum of stupid foot-shaped trinkets, there was the silver foot. It could be only earned after running a billion and a half laps, at least.
I knew one kid who had a silver foot. He rode my bus to school. I tried to talk to him, tried to figure out how he had done it, but he didn’t have to answer my questions. He was obviously too cool for me. The best that I had was a yellow foot. I was nothing to him.
But still, a yellow foot was something formidable. A lot of the kids couldn’t make it past red. But I was quick. I would scamper around that track as fast as I could, and someday I would have my silver foot-shaped trinket. It was plain to see that getting one was the only way to become one of the cool kids.
Do elementary schools have “cool kids”?
The end of recess was always an awkward moment for the teachers. They’d be trying to get all of the kids off of the playground, but a bunch of people would abruptly break into a sprint, begging, “Just one… more… lap…” The faster kids were sneaky, and they’d slip in an extra two laps.
But then in third grade, something happened. Something horrible. Something so sinister that I couldn’t believe it.
So how did the teachers count laps? It’s simple, really. A punch-card system. You get a little card, and it has a bunch of numbers on it, and you carry it with you while you run the track. When you run a lap, whichever staff member is at the edge of the track will give you another hole punch. The top half of the card was numbered one through twenty-five, and the bottom half was a bunch of multiples of twenty-five. Once you’d run twenty-five laps and filled the top half, you get a new card that has the next multiple of twenty-five punched in on the bottom. Then you count out another twenty-five until that card fills, and so on.
One of the kids in my third grade class got a silver foot within four weeks of the spring. It was impossible. Usually the silver feet didn’t start appearing until the end of May, or even the start of June. So I asked the kid how he had done it so quickly.
It turns out that every child has a hole puncher somewhere in their house.
This kid had gotten his first card, one without any punches, brought it home, and punched in two hundred laps. Then he laid low for a few days, waiting for two hundred to be a near-reasonable number, and then he started running. Whoever was punching the cards didn’t need to recognize his face, because it was a new staff member every recess. This guy had supposedly run two hundred laps in the time that it would take most kids to hit fifty, and the teachers were impressed.
And how did he explain not having the green, red, or blue trinkets that he should have already earned? He didn’t need to. He’d taken last year’s and hooked them onto his backpack.
It was a kind of conflict that I’d never had before. I mean, hole punching sounded so easy, and it was a one-way ticket to being one of the cool kids. I could imagine myself showing that silver foot-shaped trinket to everybody on the school bus and being so unfathomably popular.
Here’s the problem: I had already run fifty-some laps that year. My card already had the fifty punched in on the bottom, and the bottom half is only supposed to have one hole in it, the unit of twenty-five that you’re on. If I wanted to skip any more than twenty-four laps, I would need a fresh, blank card.
So I schemed. Well, I half-schemed. I thought of ideas, but I was too afraid to act on any of them. I could try to pickpocket the staff member that handed out the cards. But that was risky. If I was caught, who knew what would happen to me? I could try to recreate the card on a computer and print out my own copy. But what if I missed a detail? What if the texture of paper wasn’t quite the same, or the font wasn’t perfect, or the spacing was wrong?
I spiraled into a state of self-loathing. I stopped running laps. I even stopped planning to get a fake card. If you could cheat to get the trinkets, then the track meant nothing to me. All of the status that the trinkets provided was a sham. Had any student in the history of the school really earned a silver foot properly? Or had they all been cheaters?
One time when I was in high school, I went to Fred Meyer and found a big basket full of ten-cent trinkets. There were multicolored feet in that basket. I guess the teachers had to be buying them from somewhere. Maybe the kids were buying them somewhere too. Ten cents for a silver foot, and therefore ten cents for all of the fame that a child can imagine? Sounds like a good deal to me.