It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the sun is bright and I’m taking my sons, aged four and two, to the local elementary school. It was where I once went to school myself, across the road from my parents’ house. Like some people do, I returned to the area where I grew up when I became a parent. I’d had positive experiences there and wanted the same for my kids, even though the area had changed considerably in thirty years. There were now less kids on bikes, more vehicle traffic, and fewer local businesses. The school had also closed after I graduated.
Beneath a copse of dry and bent gum trees, my sons start to play, collecting gum nuts and bottle caps, following the crawl of bull ants and flight path of butterflies. Standing behind them, looking out across the overgrown area of weeds and misshapen clumps of grass, I feel a strange sensation overcome me. My skin bristles, my face feels flushed. After ruling out something medical as the cause, the true reason comes to me as a vision unfurls before my eyes like a flower blooming.
In my vision, there aren’t just two kids playing under the gum trees; there’s about 50, boys and girls of all ages. And the area isn’t wild and jungle-y; it’s smooth and circular and ordered. Some kids are celebrating, others sobbing, while yet others wait patiently to test their skill and chance their luck. I’m in the last category, my palm sweaty. In it nestles the reason for my anxiety: a perfectly spherical glass marble.
Games of marbles occupied the vast majority of my elementary school years, and probably represented the first sport I ever played.
Games of marbles occupied the vast majority of my elementary school years, and probably represented the first sport I ever played. We played games in the dirt, on fields that we designed and cleared ourselves; some were large, others small, each had their own challenge and flavour, like holes on a golf course. Entire recesses and lunchtimes were spent on bended knees – back then, young and supple – with one eye closed tight and a tongue protruding sideways in intense concentration as a kill shot was attempted. The kill shot on an opponent’s marble came after you first visited the ‘bunny hole’ with your own marble, and was how you won the game.
Marbles had a currency. Some were more valuable than others, even if they were smaller in size. Cat’s eyes, birdcages, dibs, galaxies. How this hierarchy was formulated was never explained or questioned, but everyone seemed to understand it with the gravity of a biblical tablet.
Another unwritten rule came in the outcome of games. Games were originally played as ‘friendlies’; but true apprehension and excitement only came when you finally played ‘for keeps’. The fear was losing the marbles that you’d begged your parents to buy you and having to head home and explain why you now only had three marbles, not six. Hard lessons were learned. Kids often cried when they lost games and had to hand over their marbles to their victors, but they rarely cried to teachers. It was the unwritten law of the schoolyard.
I used to bring my marbles to school in my pencil case and sit admiring them during class, rolling them between my ink-stained fingers and wondering which I would wager when the recess bell rang.
I used to bring my marbles to school in my pencil case and sit admiring them during class, rolling them between my ink-stained fingers and wondering which I would wager when the recess bell rang. To this day, I still remember my first game for keeps, which I won. There was an unheralded joy at taking some poor kid’s marble and knowing I had somehow earned it. I lost my second game, and marble, and many others over the years. But I think I won more games than I lost, and by the end of primary school had an impressive collection of colourful glass marbles, each a trophy unto themselves.
Looking back, I realise something. Playing marbles wasn’t just a fad or sport. There were winners, losers and stakes; essentially, it was our very first foray into the world of gambling. Compare that to today when our first gambling experiences probably take place on a phone while watching other people battle a contest, sometimes thousands of miles away. Meanwhile, there are now apps where you can play virtual marbles. It’s the same principles, same reward pathways in the brain, and need for hand-eye coordination. But no thrill, if you ask me. And the potential for less restraint and less fresh air.
Friends with older children tell me that marbles have lost their place in the modern playground pantheon. One friend said her son’s school recently had a short-lived marble craze which was apparently instigated by a teacher. Probably a sad, middle-aged dad like me, overcome with pangs of nostalgia.
Friends with older children tell me that marbles have lost their place in the modern playground pantheon.
Snapping myself out of my vision, I return to my body. Gently clapping my hands, I end afternoon play time and usher my reluctant boys home. It’s true that my old school had closed after I graduated, but it had also recently reopened with the influx of young families to the suburb and departure of retirees to the warmer climes of the coast. And new businesses had slowly started opening at the local shopping centre down the road.
We go to my parents’ house where I immediately take to their cramped garage and dig out my old marble jar. The colours look instantly familiar, as if it had been only yesterday that I’d played with them at school. Holding up the jar to my sons, I see their big eyes grow wide with amazement, curiosity and intrigue. Maybe there is hope for the future.