Additional informant data: My informant is a 2nd-grader in South Los Angeles. He has lived in LA his entire life. He is Latino and speaks both Spanish and English. He attends a public, coeducational elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Several times during the day, the children at my informant’s school have a recess period, when they’re given access to balls, jump ropes, etc., and are allowed to play outside.
Contextual data: My informant and I sat down outside his classroom after two months of my teaching his class the fundamentals of folklore through USC’s Joint Educational Program. When asked about games he and his friends play at recess, he immediately thought of handball–a game he learned from his father. The following is an exact record of our conversation:
Jackson (me): Why don’t you tell me about handball?
I (my informant): Well, you hit the ball, you can bounce it, you can catch it, you can . . . you can’t scratch the ball and then you can’t hit the ball like straight, or else you’re gonna be out, uhh . . . you can do, you sometimes you can do rainbows, uhh you can do treetops sometimes, umm . . . that’s it, that’s all I know.
J: So those are different moves you can do with the ball?
J: What’s a “scratch”? What does “scratch” mean?
I: When you scratch it, it goes, like, on the wall, you scratch it, and then it goes like down, and then you’re . . . you’re out because you can’t scratch it.
J: Oh, ok. What’s a “rainbow”?
I: A rainbow is when it goes over the wall . . . umm . . . that’s it.
J: And, uhh, what’s a . . . what’s the last one? A “treetop”? What’s a “treetop”?
I: It’s when you get the ball on the . . . on top of the . . . the roof of the wall and it stays there and then it falls and that’s it.
J: Do you remember who taught you handball?
I: My . . . my dad.
J: Your dad?”
J: Was it a long time ago, or was it pretty soon? [sic “recent”]
J: Ok. And you guys play this at recess?
J: You play with your . . . with your friends from your class? Or do you play it with kids from other classes, too?
I: Kids from other classes and my friends from my class.
What my informant described for me is a common game played in elementary schools and middle schools, which I’ve also heard go by the name of “wallball.” While he had some difficulty explaining the technicalities of the game, for the most part, I understood what he was trying to convey–especially having played a very similar game growing up in the state of Washington. The point of handball is to take turns bouncing the ball against a wall, not letting it bounce twice on the ground in front of you before you hit it back. There is a strict set of rules that must be obeyed. If one is broken, the guilty player is “out.” For example, as my informant explains, “you can’t hit the ball like straight”–meaning you have to bounce the ball off the ground and then against the wall. If, when it’s your turn, the ball bounces twice before you can get to it, you’re out, and you generally go to the end of a line of waiting players.
The boy’s description of the game was particularly interesting for me because of its unique terminology. Unfortunately, I had a hard time visualizing what he was trying to explain, and I was unable to watch him play, but what we see is a complex system of etiquette and jargon all associated with the recess game of handball. I’m unsure about whether the game has some kind of underlying social significance, but, as far as I know, there is no canonized style of play, and it’s usually played by children without adults having to teach them. The game changes, in terms of specific rules and terminologies, and it remains popular across the United States.
Annotation: Seen in Louis Sachar’s 2011 children’s novel A Magic Crystal? (beginning of Chapter 5, no page numbers) (called “wall-ball”)