“So another game is called Gossip, and you sit in a circle and one person, or I think it has been called Telephone, but it’s also called Gossip, and so one person has a secret to tell the person next to them, so they whisper it into their ear, and then it goes around the circle, the next person has to whisper it and the next and the next and the next, and then when you get to the end, the last person says what they heard from that person and compare it to what the person originally said. And that’s the game.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “probably in elementary school . . . in Houston, Texas. We played it in like a second grade class, in a circle.”
The informant thinks “two reasons [the game is] attractive to people is because it’s interesting to see what comes out at the end, if you compare what originally was said with what was it, so you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so weird that you never hear the same thing at the end that it started out to be, so it’s interesting to see what it warps into.’ And I guess the other reason it’s called Gossip it what you originally say isn’t what you hear at the end. So, the message is diluted when other people say it.” The informant implied this is also what she thinks it means.
This game was interesting to me when the informant explained it because I know it is “Telephone.” This game is an easy game to play with a lot of people who do not necessarily know each other, and it is variable in the amount of time it takes to play. The fact that the informant knows it as “Gossip” and learned to play it when she was in elementary school is somewhat revealing about what this game actually means. While it is fun to see how the original message gets changed as people hear and interpret it, it also seems like there is a deeper message behind its simple actions. This game functions as a way to teach children about the way gossip works in our society, and how what you say can be changed into something unrecognizable by the end. The way the information is transmitted may be boiled down and expedited, but it is still a helpful demonstration of a larger social phenomenon.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“Me: So what game did you play again?
M: Oh! Cops n’ Robbers!
Me: When did you play that game?
M: Elementary school!
Me: How do you play that game?
M: Well you’re basically you got some cops, and you got some robbers, so there’s like people on teams and stuff. So you’ve got the cops chasing the robbers, they could get feisty with it and the robbers could beat up the cops. There were bases too, if the robbers got to the bases they were okay, it was a hideout.
Me: Were you usually a cop or a robber?
M: Man, I don’t remember, that was a long time ago. I don’t think there was one that I was more of, we all sorta did both all the time. It was like, hey! Let’s play Cops n’ Robbers, I’ll be on this team you be on that.
Me: Did the cops always win?
M: No. It’s not like real life, it’s more realistic than that.
The game seems to be “M”s version of the popular schoolyard game, Cops n’ Robbers, a fairly well known game in North America. In the April 1973 publication of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, in an article titled Children’s Folklore in the Archive of Folk Song, the article suggests the splitting of children’s Folklore in their very large Folklore collection (at the time, the collection was near 150,000 entries) into categories. One of these categories, battle games uses Cops and Robbers as a classic example as to what sorts of entries would fit this sort, assuming knowledge in the reader about the popularity of the game (Emrich, 1973).
The game itself, as a school yard game, likely allowed “M” and his friends to try out ‘adult roles’ while also reinforcing basic moral ideas like ‘good guys’, ‘bad guys’ and ‘the good guys have to stop the bad guys’, while also allowing them to simulate more adult situations (apprehending a criminal). The lack of preference could indicate that the players had no moral or occupational preference and preferred the role playing aspect instead, this could be contrasted to a child who wants to play as the cop because his father is a police officer (or any other reason he/she may admire the profession). ”M”s version of the game also included a base that the criminals could get to to defeat the cops and get away. As the cops did not always win (or the robbers didn’t) the aspect of good triumphing over evil or any other sort of overarching narrative did not appear to be part of “M”s approach to the game.
Emrich, D. (1973, April). Children’s Folklore in the Archive of Folk Song. In The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (pp. 140-151). Library of Congress.
Informant: I heard this going into 4th grade. So before Mrs. Stern there was a teacher, and she was the best teacher ever. So this was before the school was going to go under construction. You know how it happened? So she went on vacation for one week and had a sub. So on vacation the principal sent a letter to everybody saying that there is no school one day because they are going under construction, but the teacher, the best teacher, didn’t get it because she was on vacation. So one day she went to school and it was quiet. So then she was there and she was like “Okay, let me just do some work”, but then a big wrecking ball comes and it HITS THE SCHOOL! It buries her in it. So in the fourth grade classroom they say that you can her murmmering below the floors
Interviwer: Where did you hear this story?
Informant: from the 8th graders
Interviewer: where and when did you hear the story?
Informant: It was at drama camp, two years ago.
Interviewer: Do you tell this to other kids?
Interviewer: like who?
Informant: like new kids
The fact the that the story was told to the informant during the summer before fourth grade, indicates that this tale can be seen as a type of initiation story for the younger kids in the school. The eighth graders endow the younger kids with “knowledge” as they enter into the later grades of their elementary education. This reaffirms the hierarchy as the younger children enter into the space of the older kids, the eight graders possess knowledge that the younger kids don’t, therefore they should defer to them.
Informant: I first heard it from one of my friends, but then it kind of like turned into a game. So there is a bathroom downstairs at my school which weird because there is a toilet where every time you flush it, it makes a burping noise. So it goes like “zzzzzzzzhhhhhhh . . . UGGGH!” So my friends said the toilet is possessed by Chuckie, so that it always tries to swallow you. So now every time I go to bathroom, I like go to the bathroom and then run out of the stall before it like, makes the noise. And then rinse my hands and then run out as quickly as I can. They say the bathroom is possessed because when you put your hand in sometime on the sink for the automatic faucet, the other one, another sink turns on. So they say that he is coming after you, but he always has to wash his hands first.
This is an instance were the unknown or “strange” has been demonized. The “Chuckie Bathroom” toilet has deviated from what the children usually expect from a toilet. To cope the children created a story to explain the unusualness which in turn has sparked a legend, and a whole set of corresponding behaviors like running away before the toilet can make “the burping noise”. It is interesting to note, that in creating the legend, they assimilated the bathroom to popular culture through “Chuckie”, which it turn makes it more familiar. Later, what began as a compulsive ritual is reclaimed from the participants as they consciously make a game out of it.
Bloody Mary Bathroom
Informant: So in my elementary school, in the old building, there is the little kid’s bathroom. So it was really old and gross and the windows are all scratched up and everyone would say, “that’s where Bloody Mary is and if you’re going to do Bloody Mary, you gotta do it in there, she hangs out in there”. So it’s all beat up, and on the last wall, there is a board. Just a board nailed to the wall, this big (hold out hands 1 ft by 1 ft apart). And it’s painted over, okay, just a board painted over, but they would always say, “ You know why there’s a board there? BECAUSE THERE’S A FINGER UNDER IT!” I don’t remember who told me, I assume its is one of the older girls.
interviewer: Who did you tell this story to?
informant: The new kids, or the younger kids and then they redid it . . .
interviewer: So then did it stop being Bloody Mary Bathroom?
Informant: No, it was still Bloody Mary Bathroom to us, but then I think the tradition died.
It is interesting to note the evolution of the variation of the legend. Originally, the old, strange, scary bathroom was dubbed “Bloody Mary Bathroom” because it was strange and scary like Bloody Mary herself. The young students assimilated the story of the board in the bathroom into the legend by correlating the two together. The severed-finger board is now part of the Bloody Mary legend due to their unification in the bathroom and the story has a new variation in this community.
Context: The informant is an 11-year-old resident of Southern California, of Indo-Pakistani descent. She lives with two older siblings, parents, and grandparents and attends a public middle school in the South Bay area. She has close friends of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and the following narrative sequence is one she learned from one of these friends while she was still in elementary school.
Transcript of video:
“This is Buggy!
Buggy says hi!
Buggy can fly!
Yay for Buggy!
Oops, Buggy died.”
Analysis: The informant says she learned it only a couple years ago and remembered it because she “thought it was cool” and “kind of funny”. The informant relates that she enjoys many types of art, including drawing and painting, and often is in charge of making signs for events among her friend group, like yard sales and party invitations. So the personal appeal to a young artist or craftsperson is obvious.
I think the general appeal here is similar: the fact that with a few simple drawings and letters, an entire story can be told with little effort. The idea that there are just enough fingers on a person’s hand to write “T-H-I-S” on the knuckles, and then fold different fingers to show different words, must be appealing to kids who are just starting to appreciate the difficulties of both language and tactile crafts such as beading, painting, or cursive handwriting. The simple story is also humorous and a common enough occurrence: trying to save a little bug only to find that you unfortunately don’t know your own strength; or simply the humor of seeing something that causes many small children, especially girls, some anxiety–“creepy crawlies”–being put out in such a messy and unceremonious manner helps them cope with those anxieties indirectly while not being called out as a “scaredy cat” or a “sissy”.
Context: The informant is a Pakistani-American 11-year-old girl and a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA. The following clapping rhyme is a two-person game she learned in first grade.
“I went to a Chinese restaurant
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread
She asked me what my name was
And this is what i said, said, said
My name is
L-I-L-I, Pickle-eye pickle-eye
pom-pom beauty, sleeping beauty
Then she told me to freeze freeze freeze
And whoever moves, loses.”
The word “freeze” may be said either once or three times, and at that moment the players must both freeze. The informant also showed me the two kinds of clapping sequence that are used for the two parts of the game, one for the first four lines, and the other for lines 6-8.
Analysis: At first glance, the rhyme seems like complete nonsense; but upon further examination, the rhyme could conceal casual racism. “Li” could be an East Asian name. Rhyming it with “pickle-eye” (which itself could be referring to culturally unfamiliar food which is automatically dismissed as unnatural or revolting–for instance recall the urban legend where neighborhood cats/dogs were disappearing after immigrants from [insert Asian country here] moved in), which is essentially a nonsense word, could be meant to show disrespect towards all people with similarly “Asian” names. Then referring to oneself as a “pom-pom beauty” (perhaps referring to a cheerleader’s pom-poms) and “sleeping beauty” (the classic western fairy tale) as a contrast to the “Li” lady is like proclaiming, I am an all-American girl, like a cheerleader or Sleeping Beauty, and you are not.
Context: The informant is an 11 year old girl of Pakistani descent. She is a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA. Her social groups include friends of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The following clapping rhyme is a two-person game she learned in first grade.
Lemonade, iced tea, Coca-cola, Pepsi,
turn around, touch the ground, kick your boyfriend out of town, freeze”
Another version from the same informant begins with the same line:
Beat it once,
beat it twice,
Lemonade, crunchy ice, beat it once, beat it twice,
turn around, touch the ground, kick your boyfriend out of town, freeze”
In the last line of both versions, the players may perform the actions sung: they turn in a circle, drop to a crouch to touch the ground, and may even stand up and make a kicking motion. At the word “freeze,” both players must stop moving, and the first to move loses.
Analysis: I learned a version of this game, similar to the second version recorded, from cousins who went to the same school district as the informant. Instead of the words “beat it,” however, the words “pour it” were used, and the last line was completely omitted. The rhyme ended with the players crying “Statue!” and the first person to move, lost. Somehow, however, a player was allowed to tickle the other person to get them to move, even though tickling would seemingly count as moving.
The incorporation of Coca-cola and Pepsi, both globally-recognizable drink names, into the rhyme is evidence of how popular the drink is worldwide and how it has been incorporated into “American” or “Southern California” culture, that children are mentioning it in their songs along with the ever-popular summer drink of lemonade.
The last line “Turn around, touch the ground” seems to be echoing some long-dead magic ritual, especially when followed by a mention of the singer’s boyfriend (keeping in mind that 11 years old, the majority of children likely have nothing close to a romantic partner yet). Also, the pouring of the drink–once, then twice–would seem to recall the adult practice of pouring drinks for oneself and one’s partner after a long day or at a party. This shows this age-group’s (perhaps unconscious) desire to mimic the adult relationships they see with their own peers.
The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both originally from Pakistan. He has lived in Southern California all his life, with frequent trips to Pakistan to visit extended family. Although he graduated from a public high school, he attended a private Islamic elementary school until the third grade. He says there were Muslims of many backgrounds at the school, and one of his friends (who also happened to be of Pakistani descent) used to sing this as a joke during rehearsals for school programs. It is a partial parody of a once-popular song by the artist R. Kelly.
I believe i can die
I got shot by the FBI
My momma hit me with a chicken wing
All the way to Burger King
Analysis: The informant (and, according to him, his other friends and classmates) always thought the song was funny, both because “the original song was about how, you know, you can do anything if you try hard and believe in yourself, and like… not letting your fears get in the way of…getting your dreams or whatever. And then it’s like, oh, I got shot by the FBI and my mom hates me…So, that was funny;” and also that the friend in question was also a bit of a troublemaker, so the just the fact of him singing the rather inappropriate song when he was supposed to be singing a school song, “made it even funnier” to the informant.
From a more objective point of view, the elementary school attended by the informant was located in South Los Angeles, which has a high population of African-American residents. It is quite possible that this parody was learned from neighbors or friends who were African-American, as it seems to give voice, through humor, to anxieties about dangers which are uniquely part of the reality of African-Americans in South LA–that is, being “shot by the FBI” or otherwise victimized by members of potentially racist law enforcement or the government. It’s also a very stark contrast between the original song’s message of hope and inspiration and this version’s obvious (justified) pessimism about American society. On the other hand, the second and third lines seem to include stereotypes about African Americans’ supposed fondness for fried chicken and fast-food and their strict parenting style.
An online search reveals that parodies of this song are common among African Americans from LA to Pittsburgh, revealing how far and wide the common anxieties of this minority group spreads.