by Eric Wolarsky
It’s not too often that great moments in history light up like a neon sign and flicker at us through the ages. The competition to design the new bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence in 1401 shouts out “The Italian Renaissance begins here!” And the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 dramatically signaled the end of the Cold War, though teenage me was too obtuse to understand that at the time.
As George School inches closer to its 125th year, we need only look at the images of its earliest students on the walls of the Meetinghouse to see how much the school has changed over the years. But most of that change occurred in a long, slow evolution, and the obvious watershed moments were few and far between. However, a momentous change is underway at George School this year, and the rapidity of its stunning arrival has left many in our community feeling whiplash.
For me it began on a pleasantly brisk morning in the first week of December. Having descended five flights of stairs from my apartment in Central dormitory to the Children’s Center in the basement of Main, I finished dropping off my son, walked down the hallway past the offices of our IS department, and emerged on Red Square en route to my office in Marshall. That’s when I noticed it.
There was a group of students in a tight circle on Red Square, playing hacky sack. It was pretty early in the morning, and Red Square was otherwise abandoned, and I didn’t think much of it at the time.
I walk back and forth between Marshall and Main a half dozen times per day. And an eerie sense of something strange, something out of place started to grow within me with each subsequent trip that week. Each time I would cross between the buildings, I would see a group playing hacky sack, maybe two, and no one playing four square.
“Huh,” I thought to myself. “Fickle teenagers and their passing fads. This will surely pass.”
But several days went by, and it didn’t pass. I was growing uneasy.
As dean of students, I can’t just ignore major events affecting our student body. But I didn’t understand what was happening, and it was disorienting. Faced with this mystery, I did what I always do. I asked Twitter.
For 24 hours, Twitter offered no answers. But the next afternoon, crossing Red Square at the end of my work day, some students playing hacky sack asked me what I thought about “the poll.”
“What poll?” I asked.
“The poll on Twitter,” they replied.
It turned out that George School’s observant assistant director of communications had seen my tweet and launched a Twitter poll asking the community to vote between activities: four square or hacky sack. Engrossed in my work all day, I hadn’t seen the poll yet. By the time I took a look an hour later, there were already 44 respondents, and hacky sack had a big lead.
For 24 hours interested parties waited to see how the poll would turn out. Alums in the Twitterverse chimed in with opinions. Tweets about the validity of the poll were bandied about. When it was all said and done, Team Hacky Sack had won, 53% to 47%. There it was in indisputable pixels on a screen. The impossible had become possible, and a community that had been defined by its allegiance to the subtle art of four square – for decades! – had suddenly pivoted.
The pro-hack students were ebullient in their victory. And, to my surprise, it has been a lasting victory. I haven’t seen four square played in nearly two weeks now. It is as if the entire student body, through some silent, secret shibboleth, has cast off the defining communal activity of our central plaza.
I’m not entirely sure yet how I feel about this. There was something egalitarian, something creative about four square. It served as a metaphor for the school’s values. Can hacky sack wield the same symbolic force? Will it be as inclusive and engrossing? After the winter’s frost has come and gone from Red Square, will the school revert to muscle memory, and the four square ball will come out again on an unseasonably warm day in late February? Or is this it from now on?
Those questions will be answered in time. What I know today is that many of our students are proud that they’ve staked out a new identity. They’ve shown that they are not beholden to tradition, and that they don’t have to do what their older siblings did when they were here. We may lament the passing of four square, but we must honor the spirit of independence that animates this hacky sack movement.