USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘school’

Seven-Up Childhood Game

Informant: The informant is Aliki, an eighteen-year-old young woman who grew up in Yonkers, New York. She is a freshman at Concordia University in Irvine, California. She is of Greek descent.

Context of the Performance: We sat on the floor of my dorm room at the University of Southern California when Aliki visited me during her spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: When I was in elementary school, my music teacher taught me a game called seven-up. Basically, she would pick seven people to stand at the front of the room, and the rest of the class would sit at their desks with their heads down and their thumbs up. The seven chosen would then walk around the room, and each would tap one seated person’s thumb. They would put their thumbs down once they were tapped. Then, when the seven people were done, they would return to the front of the room, and the seven whose thumbs were tapped would stand at their desks. Each would then choose whomever they thought tapped them, and if they were right, they would switch places and roles with them. If they were wrong, they’d sit back down. At the end of the guessing, the people a the front would admit whose thumbs they tapped. Then the process would happen all over again.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: It’s a childhood game. It’s important to me because of my memories tied to it. My friends and I got so excited to play this game, and it was always the biggest deal to figure out who tapped your thumb! Also, everyone from other schools played something similar to seven-up growing up, usually just with slightly different rules or a different name, but it’s something to reminisce on not only with my classmates but really anyone my age.

Personal Thoughts: I enjoyed hearing about this piece of folklore because I played the same game in elementary school and feel the same way about other people knowing a similar version. It’s very interesting to see how games in different schools compare and how they were a major part of our lives. We even go so far as to argue over which version is right.


“Red Light, Green Light” Childhood Game

Informant: The informant is a twenty-two-year-old named Samantha. She graduated from Providence College last year and is currently working in New York City as an Advertising Sales Assistant for VERANDA Magazine. She lives in Yonkers, New York with her parents and has lived there for her whole life. She is of Italian, English, and Russian descent.

Context of the performance: We sat next to each other on the living room floor at her house in Yonkers, New York during my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: Back in elementary school, my friends taught me a game called Red Light, Green Light. Essentially, one leader would stand facing the rest of the group of people, who would stand far away from him or her. Then, the leader would turn around and yell, “Red light, green light, 1, 2, 3!” While the leader said this phrase, the group would run toward him or her, but when the leader turned around, they would all have to freeze. If any of them moved while he leader was turned around, he or she would call them out and tell them to go back to the start line. Whoever reached the leader first while he or she was turned around saying the phrase would tap the leader and become the next leader. The game would continue with a new leader, and the old leader would join the group.

Interviewer: Why is this game important to you?

Informant: This game reminds me of my childhood and my days in elementary school. I remember thinking that it was so funny if someone tripped during the game or couldn’t stay frozen long enough, and I remember the suspense of trying to stay still in the group or waiting to be tapped on the shoulder as the leader. Also, this game reminds me of the end of the school year, which was the best time of year, because it started to get warm out, and we could play outside again. We would play during recess or, if we were lucky, our parents would let us stay and play after school. That was the best, especially if the Ice Cream Truck showed up.

Personal ThoughtsI played “Red Light, Green Light” when I was little as well. What I find interesting about this game, and other games that my friends and I played as children, is that it has to do with topics we would face as we got older. For example, this game is about red lights and green lights and stopping and going, so it pertains to driving. Children always long to grow up, and the games they play often highlight that.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pep Rallies

When my dad got out of the army, he, uh… we moved to Arkansas. So I was probably, like, ten or eleven, um… And so then I’m, like, I became one of them, right? And, uh… going to pep rallies was, like, a new thing… for me, um… All the schools that I’d gone to, I lived in, like, Washington state, Colorado, and… they didn’t really have pep rallies. I don’t know, maybe they did in high school, but I… I wasn’t aware of them. Anyway, I remember going into this gym and, um… you know, the cheerleaders are cheering, and the football team is, like, running around, the band’s playing, and then everyone was, like, clapping, and then making this sound, like, “Woooooo!” And I was, like, I cannot make that sound, like… I was, like, trying, and I’d be going like, “Uhhh! Weeeaaah! Aaagghhh!” you know, like that. And then, as everyone was screaming, I would, like, try it out to see how to make that “wooo” sound… Anyway, so that was just, like, trying to, like, figure out how to be normal at a pep rally.


My informant is a self-described “librarian type”– she is very bookish (she studies Shakespeare and is a writing instructor) and sort of introverted. Thus, the wild screaming and cheering and overall rowdy atmosphere of pep rallies, particularly in a place to which she was new at the time, seemed very strange and out-of-character for her. This story also points to the culture of pressure to fit in or “be normal” in society generally, and especially in high school. This almost forced community gathering and vocalizing of loyalty or excitement for one’s school somewhat institutionalizes this practice, and marks my informant as an outsider who is new and unfamiliar with the expectations of how to show support for her school identity.


Old Miss Hackley

The informant, a 20-year-old college student, attended a private Ivy League Preparatory school in New York, the Hackley School, for grades 6-12. While I was out to lunch between classes with the informant, I asked if she could tell me about her school’s history, and if there were any traditions or narratives related to this history that all of the students know about.

“Well, Hackley is named after the woman who founded it over a century ago, Miss Hackley. Everyone thinks of her as this old, gray-haired, witch-like woman. Deep in the library there are a lot of old books and paintings. The story goes that in this one really old painting of the school, there was a shadowy figure towards the back for as long as anyone could remember. Then, a few years ago, the figure disappeared. So supposedly that was Miss Hackley, and she moves in and out of pictures and paintings throughout the campus watching the students’ every move and making sure that nobody is acting out or being disrespectful.”

This legend regarding the founder of the informant’s school is a way to keep the institution’s history alive by implying that the school’s long-dead founder is still very much aware of whether the students are being respectful and behaving appropriately. The informant said that while she does not believe that Miss Hackley’s spirit inhabits the school, thinking about the possibility still creeps her out. This legend functions to keep the students at Hackley School in line by providing an ultimatum that, while perhaps not entirely threatening, would make a student think twice before sneaking off into empty classrooms or cutting class: if you fail to obey the school’s code of conduct you are disrespecting Miss Hackley, and if she knows of these the potential for her to discipline you exists. The legend is not dependent on students believing that Miss Hackley’s spirit actually inhabits the school, but rather on the slightest bit of doubt that it possibly could. I think that the nature of the institution, as an old, elite private school on the east coast, allows the legend to operate much more effectively than it would at, say, a relatively new public school on the west coast, due to the fact that the older school as a more extensive, and unknown, history that a newer school would lack.


The House on the Bus Route


Me: “Did you ever go to the house in person?”

Informant: “It was on the bus route which was somewhat long, so it wouldn’t have made sense to. But I don’t think anyone would have wanted to anyway…”

A house on the informant’s elementary school bus route in southwest Ohio had a very eerie exterior. The owner had built extra things on to it — weird overhands, banisters, small porches — which led to a unique structure. All the additions were poorly put together, so as a whole, it looked like a bit of a wreck. Kids would always look at it as they passed. Over time things were added to it or changed, but they never saw the owner or someone working on the house. It never looked like anyone was home. The story behind the house among the children was that a drug dealer lived there. If someone stepped on to the lawn, he would shoot them for trespassing.



The informant assumed that there wasn’t a reason behind the story of the man who was there. He had heard it from fellow classmates, who heard it from siblings, but as far as he knew there was not a specific reason that led to that explanation. He still remembered how weird the house looked and that the structure alone was cause for curiosity and a little uneasiness. In us talking about it, he posited that if anything, the arbitrary construction was sort of unnerving as to the mental stability of the owner. I asked if he stopped by the house on foot at any point, but because it was just one location along a bus route, there wasn’t an opportunity to. Nor would he have, he said, since there was just a general fear of it among the kids.



Around the age of 12 when the informant had this experience, kids are starting to get exposed to anti-drug education from schools and parents. There wasn’t any basis for the “drug dealer” bit, but perhaps it was created to associate a fear of the unknown with the growing awareness of a negative thing like drugs. It seems most school stories like this have no clear generation or grade where they started, but are simply an evolution that caters to the active issue around that age range. In this case, drug awareness is connected to a mysterious but haunting looking house.

Folk Beliefs

Math Classroom Ghost

Information about the Informant

My informant is an English teacher at a high school in Southern California, and has been teaching for over twenty-five years. She has been featured as an Influential Teacher of the Month within the last five years, and has received great reviews and praise from her former students as a teacher who cares about and motivates her students to succeed. I met her next to Tommy Trojan when she brought her class to USC campus on a college visit and she gave me this school ghost story in the short time before she had to collect her class.


“I teach at the oldest high school in [school name and location removed]. And there is a common story that, um, circulates. And that is that one of the math classes is haunted. And so everyone goes in, I–usually on a Thursday morning, and you can note the differences in air temperature. Um, on a Thursday morning, you can, at any other time, on any other day. So, we really believe that something is going on in that school, or in that room, or something occurred there that–and that is an ongoing reminder to us that something negative occurred in there, because it’s always cold.”

Collector: “Is there any, like, theory as to what it might be?”

“From my kids? No, we’ve no theory. We have no idea because we cannot, um, there’s no accounting of anything had ever happened in there. So it could be that prior to the building being built, that some violent occurrence was there. Maybe, you know, some, uh, early settlers or maybe some of the indigenous people, or something like that that was in–that was, gave that piece of land or that little area kind of a negative quality.”


When asked how this possibly haunted classroom affected people at the school, whether staff members or students, my informant told me that all it seemed to do was reaffirm the beliefs that the students or staff members already had. For those students (and possibly members of the staff) who already believed in an afterlife that included ghosts or some sort of spiritual remnant left in the world after death, the story “gives credence” to that belief. But for those who did not believe in ghosts, they simply believed the unnatural cold was due to “wind pattern or something.”

This is an interesting example as it’s an instance of a ghost story where there is no actual ghost, but merely an unnatural phenomenon that could easily be attributed to a natural cause. It’s interesting to observe because, rather than attribute the cold to a problem with the cooling system or weather patterns, it seems like people at the school are more than willing to try to find a “supernatural” explanation for the cold, even undertaking, it sounds like, research into the history of the school to find out if anything violent had ever occurred on the school’s property. It’s an interesting example because it provides a look at how an experience may turn into a memorate, the process by which an experience can become a memorate, where the experience is something strange but explainable and those involved instead search for a way to incorporate it into the genre of ghost stories, using the tropes about ghost stories that they already know (e.g. that if there is a ghost, there must have been some violent incident in the past; that settlers or indigenous people may have cursed the ground long ago).

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Playground Lingo

Context: The informant is a 23-year-old white female from Florida who grew up with her parents and two older siblings. When the informant was in grade school, a common accusation between kids swinging on adjacent swings, when someone got too close to them, was, “You’re in my shower!”

Analysis: The informant says she remembers the phrase because “I thought it was a weird thing to say, i was like, okay, whatever you say…” This indicates that it was not a widespread saying but perhaps unique to a small area of schools or perhaps even just the one school that the informant attended.

It can be assumed that when someone had possession of a swing, they would be unwilling to give it up or to experience interference from other swingers. The connotation of a shower being a very individual, private space, therefore, transferred onto the swinger’s small area of free movement and they would understandably be indignant of someone invading their “private,” designated area.

Folk Beliefs

Punahou Grey Lady Sightings

He (my colleague) was… walking home one day, from his office down in Bishop Hall… when he noticed this lady coming down the chapel steps. And… he goes in front of her and he can see that she has no face. It’s just… black (encircles face with hands), all black inside this cowl. And at that point he realizes that she’s not walking… she’s floating a few inches off the ground, and her left shoulder was up a little higher and she was just floating, floating until she floated right through that grating at Bishop.


I used to teach high school… and one of the kids in my AP (homeroom), he worked running the lights in Dillingham auditorium. And he’s looking over at the right side and he sees a shadow, but then he’s looking around for… well you know, he works with lights, so he knows where all the sources of light would be; how could a shadow be over there on that wall, when there’s no light source? And then he takes his light, and with his hands steers it over to shine it on the shadow, because it should just disappear, but what the shadow does, it kind of turns, like it’s facing him, stands up, and then walks down into a crack…


How did you come across this folklore: “This is a story that was told to me by a friend, another Punahou faculty member, and another story of a similar interaction from a former student that told me what happened to him.”

Punahou is a very old school, with some buildings well over a century old… and lots of eerie things are known to happen from time to time. In other more detailed versions of the story, the Grey Lady is supposed to be a spirit of a former Punahou faculty member who inhabits the school chapel and reveals herself to people on campus, usually at night and when they are alone. She usually just scares people, and doesn’t cause harm. One of the purposes of this legend is to make the Punahou community more exclusive–it’s a campus wide legend, she stays on campus, and typically is only seen by students, faculty, or staff of the school.


Folk Beliefs

Silly Pens

Interview Extract:

Informant: “One little thing that me and my friends used to do, like before every exam—and in China, every class stayed with the same students, so we all had the same tests at the same time—and what we would do was buy these ridiculous, feathery pens that were really brightly colored and had these puffy, feathery tops and ribbons, and we used them on our tests for good luck.

Our teacher would obviously look at us like we were weird, ‘cause our whole class had the crazy pens, but they made us feel like safe, and they were a good luck charm.”

Me: “How long did you do this for?”

Informant: “Um, in middle school we did it, so for like three years there, and then we stopped our first year of high school ‘cause then we outgrew them, I guess.”

Me: “Do you still wish you did it?”

Informant: “Um, I don’t know. It was our kind of rebellion I suppose, because we had to use blue or black ink on our tests, so we wrote in blue or black ink with feathers the most obnoxious pens ever. In China, like there were a lot of thrift stores that sold them, so we’d go there before every class to get them.”

Me: “Did you get a new one for every test?”

Informant: “Yes. They didn’t last very long, but they were cheap so it was like, whatever.”


It is clear why this silly pen tradition was important to my informant. They provided solidarity, a quiet way to rebel against school and authorities, an opportunity to keep secrets from adults, and perhaps most importantly, a way to simply have a laugh on an otherwise stressful occasion. While the students may have honestly believed that the fluffy, feathery pens bought them good luck on their exams, I think they continued this tradition for three or so years mainly because it did bring them together as a class. In my personal experience of test-taking, there is always a sense of jovial camaraderie within the class if everyone is doubting themselves or if everyone is worried over a particular question. This isn’t exactly a positive thing, and yet there is comfort in knowing that everyone else is in the same situation. The pens would serve as a physical reminder to the students that they are joined together against the institution, especially as they go on outings to buy the pens with their own money and then use them ostentatiously in class. There is even the added glee that the students were committing an act that wasn’t entirely within the school rules. They were following directions, but bending them slightly, and in such a manner that they couldn’t actually get in trouble.

It would be doubtful that anyone would abstain from using the silly pens, even if it was ridiculous or uncomfortable to write with them, simply because no young student would want to be left out. After all, I’d imagine they would provide an abundance of fond memories and laughter.


Valentines Day

While she was at school, my informant partook in a Valentine’s Day activity wherein each child in the class makes Valentine’s cards for everyone, and then makes a box and decorates the box.  Children then go around and put their cards in everyone else’s box.  She said that she was not very good at arts and crafts as a young child and so she thought her box was terrible and plain compared to everyone else’s.  According to my informant, the other children’s boxes had dancers and straws and ballerinas and other fancy figures on the side of the box, and she felt very embarrassed about the state of her box.  Later in life, she said she realized that the other children had fancy boxes because their parent’s helped to make them.

When I was in elementary school, we too participated in the ritual of exchanging Valentine’s day cards.  We made our own box, but we usually just went out and bought a set of Valentine’s day cards at the store, which came in packs of 16 or 20.  Also it was tradition to tape a small portion of candy onto your Valentine’s cards.  Cards were given to every student regardless of the gender of the giver or the recipient.  For us, Valentine’s day was less about the making of boxes and more about getting free candy.