Last week while playing a morning game of “frolf” (frisbee golf) with a group of older boys I was ambushed by members of Macomber’s local, unofficial, and possibly quite secret all-girl spyclub. It was a beautiful autumn morning, and these seven girls, all nine or under, were in a fierce mood. They had armed themselves with sticks and wiffle-ball bats and stood surrounding us ready for combat. We were crossing their land, they said, and they had come to confiscate our weapons (our frisbees) and drive us away. I defended myself ably with a mixture of good humor, play, and, when a stick was swung too close, some serious adult admonition, before my older confederates and I were able to escape to the safety of the golf green.
I wasn’t sure what the girls were up to exactly but it seemed fun so later that day I accepted a formal invitation to join the spyclub and surrendered myself for training. What I found was a bunch of children nearly beside themselves with happiness. The zeal with which they had earlier chased me away was matched by the zeal with which they now showed me around their clubhouse and shared the secrets of their game. I don’t know what it was about spyclub that so struck a nerve but clearly the game had empowered them. They stood on their picnic table clubhouse, holding their wiffle-ball bats aloft, and explained the rules and duties of spyclub members. Some were leaders, some were lookouts, one was a nurse. There were sleeping areas and living areas designated for each member. They had collected all the weapons they could find (wiffle-balls, bats, and frisbees) in order to hide them from their enemies. They lived by their own rules, they said, and they were never going back to the Center.
Like many children’s games, this game, I began to realize, largely involved the continual reiteration of the rules, a never ending task of delimiting fantasy from the overwhelming constraints of reality. Indeed, one of the comical elements of spyclub was that spying was not yet allowed-- they were still training and the rules for spy missions had not yet been established. Without spying, their chief tasks were defending their territory from enemies and enforcing their own rules. For instance, no one could stand on the upside down picnic table without permission from one of the leaders. (“Is that really safe?” I asked, since they had been told the previous year not to climb on upside down picnic tables. “Don’t worry,” I was told by one of the leaders, “I never give permission”.)
In order to enforce the rules a complex system of punishments had been devised. There were two jails, a sideways picnic table that prisoners were forced to sit in and a hollowed out area in a thorn bush (where the weapons were hidden). Punishment included being locked in one of the prisons or, for the truly depraved, being sent to Princess Camp. This is a special type of boot camp that will turn even the most hardened 8 year old spy into a prim and proper princess-- a personage apparently so anathematic to members of spyclub that to become one was the worst form of punishment imaginable. Long story short-- I was quickly sent to Princess Camp.
In Princess Camp, of course, the punishment proved far funner than the crime. To hails of laughter-- definitely the laughing-at-me sort-- I was made to parade around the fields with a frisbee on my head and curtsey while holding the hem of my sweatshirt and with my pinkies dainty upturned and a plasticine smile spread across my face. If I was truly bad I was threatened with having to copy out penmanship problems from books while locked in a tower. Pretty soon the scene devolved into an elaborate “princess-off” in with each member of spyclub balancing an increasingly tottering collection of objects on their heads as they curtsied and gamboled around the playing fields. Well . . .almost everyone. Ever watchful, one of the leaders of the spyclub returned to the clubhouse, climbed the ramparts of the picnic table fortress, and stood guard in case we were attacked.
Needless to say I had a great time with spyclub -- as I did a few weeks earlier visiting Queen Roxanne in the Kingdom of the Red Mountains and as I am sure to have in the coming weeks as chief of the local White Pines Native American tribe. These games are funny to the outsider but they are serious in themselves and they embody the attributes-- independence, social sophistication, self-motivation-- that make the kids who are successful here so unique. Macomber is an incredibly challenging environment both socially and individually. There is little structure provided to the kids by the adults here: if the kids want structure, they have to create it themselves, by working with other kids and with the adults. This structure can be as ordinary as an academic schedule or as complex as an imaginary world.