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Why Recess Sucks as a Kid With Cerebral Palsy

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I was quiet and reserved, preferring to read a book about kids playing sports than to actually play. The one time I played kickball at recess, I took the red rubber ball right to the face, marking the end of an oh-so-lucrative kickball career. Like the bit of a princess I am, I didn’t very much like the cold or the heat, so I much preferred the temperature-controlled classroom.

This sentiment may ring true for many bookish kids, but one thing made recess even a little tougher for me: mild cerebral palsy. I was an easy target when playing tag. I was easily caught and could never tag anyone back. Freeze tag was a little easier because at least once you were caught, you could rest for a bit. I used to secretly hope no other kid would come around and unfreeze me for at least a few minutes so I could catch my breath, but in hindsight, it didn’t really matter as I was usually refrozen within a matter of minutes. Suffice it to say tag was not my forte.

When I was below elementary school age my mother would come to my aid by playing the “tag monster.” She would jump in from time to time to grab my playmates and hold them for the tagger to tag, relieving me from the never-ending sprint to keep up with my friends. But much to my chagrin, my mom couldn’t be on the recess yard with me. The only time I did manage to get close to tagging someone on my own, I tripped and ended up with a broken arm and a bashed-up face, looking like I’d just been in a fight. My mom, once again my advocate, always wrote, “You should’ve seen the other guy,” on my casts so I could pretend I was the victor of some glorious battle.

Running wasn’t the only challenge recess posed for me as a kid with CP. I’m convinced elementary school girls universally love to jump rope, but no dice for me. The only way I could participate was by being a rope turner, but even that proved challenging as I struggled to keep rhythm. I did find a niche in untangling jump ropes, loving to sort out where the knots were and how to turn the tangled mass into a useful piece of playground equipment. Surprise, surprise though, sitting by yourself outside the equipment shed untangling jump ropes doesn’t make you very many friends. I initially struggled with hand games like “Miss Mary Mac” or “Bo Bo Ski Wattin Tottin,” but was eventually able to master this essential life skill with the help of a patient occupational therapist. I would find wood chips stuck to my arms, legs and sometimes even face after numerous falls on the playground, which was at least better than the dreaded blacktop.

Sometimes I’d resolve that I was going to fix the limitations I now realize were from cerebral palsy. I would have my own little Rocky-style fitness montage, but since I couldn’t actually do a push up or sit up, this mainly consisted of running around the jungle gym and up the steps to the slide, sliding down, and repeat. Once, after weeks of trying to emulate the way my peers would hang off the recess equipment with their legs, I finally succeeded, only to be immediately caught by the teacher who had the reputation of being the meanest in the whole fourth grade. I was sent to the dreaded “wall,” a chain link fence you had to stand against for 15 minutes of recess, and my days of playground acrobatics were brought to an end.

I’m now a senior in college, so my recess days are a decade behind me, but I still can’t help but shudder at the memory of what I at the time considered to be akin to a half hour spent in purgatory. My mom got me through it, patiently explaining to me again and again that no one would ever ask me in a job interview how good I was at tag. This didn’t necessarily prepare me for some of the real-life challenges of being a young adult with cerebral palsy (like when people think you’re drunk at 8 a.m. because you’re stumbling around and bumping into things), but it did help me get though those years of elementary school.

Suffice to say, I was thrilled when middle school came around and recess was replaced with study hall. A quiet place where you can read and get your homework done early? Now that’s more like it.

Originally published: August 1, 2018
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