As I was leaving campus early one afternoon, I passed by a six-year-old student standing still, facing away from the school, eyes closed, counting aloud to a hundred. The unmistakeable sign of a game of hide-&-seek. Clearwater is an excellent campus for hide-&-seek, with more likely hiding-spots than you can possibly use in a day. The game combines so much: it's a back-and-forth between individuation and group-identification. It resonates with so many stories of hairs-breadth escape, cunning and skill. While playing hide-&-seek, you can imagine yourself as a anyone on a long list of characters; Robin Hood, Katniss, James Bond, Bilbo Baggins.... It seems a safe bet that the game taps into ancient tracking and hunting instincts. And it's a game that is discouraged, or even not allowed, at a number of schools.
I worked for ten years at an after-school program that did not allow hide-&-seek. The rationale was straightforward: If your friends can't see you, the teacher can't see you; and you have to be somewhere where the teacher can see you. I repeated these words many, many times over a decade, whether inside or out, to kindergarteners and ten-year-olds. The requirement for constant supervision trumped this most venerable of kids' games.
Whenever I explained this, I could not help but feel that I was saying something else. Not: I want you to be safe, but: Stay where I can see you. And week after week, year after year, this rule along with many others that all entailed never, ever letting a child be by him or herself except in the bathroom, drilled a message home: You are not trusted.
This isn't the message my co-workers were trying to send. While I do think that there is a widespread reluctance among mainstream educators (and society at large) to think of children as capable of responsible decisions, my coworkers were mostly motivated by sincere concern for safety, compounded by deep anxiety about worst-case-scenario legal liability. Worst-case-scenarios about hide-&-seek are not hard to find: kids who go missing for hours and hours, kids who get trapped in the refrigerator or some other ingenious and fatal hiding spot. You hear these stories and a part of you can't help but feel the itch to rule out every danger factor, however small. I know these students, and I know they know the school rules, and I trust them to be reasonable and safe, but of course I can imagine a freak accident. Part of my trust of them is that I know that they can too. But it's easy, and good, to see that that isn't what's preoccupying them as they scan the buildings and bushes for the perfect cover.
A fine mist was starting to come down as I walked away from campus, the voice of the student behind fading, still counting towards Ready Or Not. Two and a half hours later I walked back. The rain had begun in earnest by then, not a downpour, but constant. As I walked up, I heard another voice over the sound of rain, saying, Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four.... There was another student standing in the same place, oblivious to his wet hair and damp clothes. Off behind him I caught a glimpse of a couple of other darting bodies slipping into concealment.
About five minutes later, the round was over and all three of them were standing by the fence. I came up. "You guys were playing hide-&-seek when I left," I said. "You been playing this whole time?"
"Oh, yeah," they said. "It's fun." That was all I needed to know.