I’ve been teaching Ophelia “Miss Mary Mack.” Do you remember the rhyme? If you’re a woman about my age, and you grew up in an English-speaking country, I’m sure you do. It goes like this:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,
All dressed in black, black, black,
Had silver buttons, buttons, buttons,
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother,
For fifteen cents, cents, cents,
To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants,
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
They jumped so high, high, high,
They reached the sky, sky, sky,
And they never came back, back, back,
Till the fourth of July, July, July!
There are variations: the version in Wikipedia (yes, there’s a whole entry for this rhyme) is a little different. Wikipedia says it’s the most common clapping game in the English-speaking world, and I’m sure that’s true. When I started teaching Ophelia clapping games, it was the first one I remembered, although “Miss Lucy Had a Baby” also came back to me pretty quickly. I started teaching her clapping games because she would get bored on the subway, and I didn’t want her playing games on my cell phone. I needed a way to keep her amused, and clapping games required only hands.
Once I started teaching her, I was surprised by the realization that she didn’t already know them. After all, she’s eight. Didn’t I already know clapping games by the time I was eight? Perhaps it’s because she plays primarily with boys, but I think it’s more than that. I think that the culture of childhood is disappearing.
If you’re my age, you probably remember having your parents tell you to get out of the house, particularly during summer vacation. We would get out of the house and just go — a group of kids, usually all the kids from the neighborhood. We would go down to the creek, wherever that was (there always seemed to be one), and play all sorts of games. Older kids taught younger kids games like Cat’s Cradle, and Slap Jack, and all sorts of jump rope rhymes. Songs like “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg . . .” (I bet you remember the rest.) Ophelia goes to one of the best schools in Lexington, which is one of the best school districts in the state, probably the country. Kids from the high school go on to Ivy League universities. The parents come from all over the world to work in Boston, primarily in medical and technological fields, and they live in Lexington for the schools. After school, their children go to chess club and robotics team and violin lessons, to karate and riding. They play together only at school or on playdates. And on those playdates, they play Pokémon or on their Wiis. Even Ophelia has an iTouch, given to her by her grandmother, so she can play Angry Birds and whatever else is on there. They don’t play clapping games.
Think about what we’re losing. Our children will be ready for a technological world, but we’ll have lost games and rhymes that have been handed down, child to child, sometimes for centuries. I think that’s terribly sad.
(On the other hand, I just realized that Miss Mary Mack would be an excellent Halloween costume. All you need is a black dress, silver buttons to sew down the back, fifteen cents (unless you’re doing the more expensive fifty-cent version — evidently, ticket prices have gone up) and a stuffed elephant. I think that would be a brilliant costume!