M is a 19 year old college student. She grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and shares a rhyme she learned in elementary school when she was in the cafeteria at lunch.
“Like elementary school on the playground you and your friends would draw a little teddy bear on one hand and scribble on the other and you’d say “This is Teddy. Teddy says hi” then you’d SMACK the other hand and say “this is Teddy when a car goes by.””
I’ve heard the same rhyme, except in California we drew a stick figure and would say “This is Steve.” This and other childhood games actually reveals a morbid fascination kids seemed to have. A lot of childhood rhymes are actually very violent in nature and play on really dark humor. I think this may be a way for kids to feel like they’re rebelling, to feel more mature. They joke about taboo things that their parents and teachers might not like them talking about because it makes them feel more adult. Maybe it also helps them make light of real topics that are actually quite frightening for children. They know death is a real thing, but they don’t want to think about it, so they make light of it.
Context: CR is a black student at USC, currently a sophomore. They and their family are originally from Houston. The informant told me about their experience after class while we were discussing the pieces of folklore we’d picked up during our lives. The saying they talked about would normally be performed by their father whenever they and their siblings hit their heads.
Text: “Okay so like growing up my… like me and my siblings would always like hit our heads like maybe on the top of our bunk beds or the roof of a car or something, and my dad would always say like “Oh no! Like I hit my head on a piece of cornbread!” And then we would just laugh instead of cry. And it was just a way that he would get us to be playful and laugh instead of focus on our pain. And he would always model it for us too. Yeah, just “I hit my head on a piece of cornbread.” There’s very much a rhythmic element to it and a rhyme, like if you say it the wrong way, it won’t be right.
“I hit my head on a piece of cornbread.”
Thoughts/Analysis: I’ve never heard of “I hit my head on a piece of cornbread,” but I’ve encountered similar sayings across my life. It makes me think of the Spanish saying sana sana, colita de rana which is also used to pacify kids after they get hurt. Soothing children after injury seems to unite a lot of childhood sayings. After all, the experience is universal. In this specific instance, though, part of the comforting nature of the saying seems to lie in its humor: the imagery of hitting one’s head on a piece of cornbread—something soft and spongy—versus whatever one hits their head on, seems to create dissonance and a disconnect from their current reality of pain.
Original Text: “Avocado is the name of the game, if you mess up, you must have a word to say”
Both people clap their own hands together
Both people clap each other’s right hands together
Both people clap each other’s left hands together
Both people clap their own hands together
Both people intertwine their fingers and press their palms out into the other’s palms
Context: The informant is an 18-year-old white American from Barrington, Illinois. They are a freshman at USC, studying Theater and Anthropology. They learned this rhyme game from their older sisters, who learned it on the elementary school playground. The informant describes it as : “a rhyme with motions to go along with it”. If you mess up the motions or the rhyme, you pick another word to replace “avocado”, and repeat the rhyme as usual. The informant would regularly play this game with friends at their public elementary school with friends to pass the time.
Analysis: Hand games with rhymes are common in American elementary schools. This particular hand game calls for the players to be able to think of a random word quickly to keep the game going if they mess up. A typical way that young American children learn to speak, read, and write properly in school is with long lists of vocabulary words and vocab tests. Everyday words, like different types of food (ex: avocado), are the most useful and common in these vocab activities. A game like this one that involves simple word recall might be especially appealing and familiar to children because of all the vocab words they are learning in their classes. Young children are also working on their motor skills, and visual/audio queues like clapping and rhyming are particularly stimulating and accessible. Rhymes are easier for people to remember, which explains why young children have an easy time remembering this game and executing it.
Text: “Zapatito blanco, zapatito azul. Dime cuántos años tienes tú.” “Little white shoe, little blue shoe. Tell me how many years are you.”
Context: EC’s relationship to this piece stems from her Mexican culture influenced by her childhood specifically within elementary school. Given that she attended a predominantly hispanic elementary school in Whittier California, EC would often hear this children’s folklore/game/counting-out-rhymewithin her classmates ranging from kindergarten through third grade as they spoke Spanish. They would typically say the phrase and touch everyone’s shoe according to every syllable of the phrase as they were getting ready to play a game and the goal was to determine who was “it”; similarly to “bubble gum bubble gum in a dish, how many pieces to do wish?”. EC interprets this speech as a fun way to determine who was ‘it” when playing hide-and-seek or tag. She explains that this phrase takes her back to her childhood where playing with friends at recess showcased innocence. She interprets this phrase as a sweet, youthful, random, and nice sounding statement used to get the game started.
Analysis: The cultural value that I see present within this children’s folklore/game/counting-out-rhyme relates to the customs of childhood within society. Despite the fact that this phrase has cultural value within the Mexican/Hispanic community, it ultimately revolves around the culture of childhood considering that it is a shared experience among many elementary aged children due to the variations in both English and Spanish. Given the fact that even though I am Mexican myself and have never heard this phrase being said at school, I often heard the English bubblegum version. Overall, I see this children’s game as a pure indicator of childhood innocence as it is a silly pre-game ritual used to determine the start of a game whether playing tag or hide-and-seek. I interpret this children’s folklore/game/counting-out-rhymeas a creative standpoint considering it has similar rhyming components and various alomotifs that connect to the English version that I grew up playing.
JN is a 50-year-old freelance writer in Minnesota, where she grew up as well. I asked her about any traditions she remembers from when she was a child, such as rhymes or things of that sort. She told me that this rhyme was said by kids, “…And whoever it landed on [when they said the last “moe”] was the person who was ‘it’ and we used it for things like tag or jump rope.”
This rhyme was a way for kids to “fairly” decide who was “it” during gameplay. Kids really emphasize fairness, and no one likes being “it”, so doing a game like “eenie meenie miney moe” is a way to randomize who is “it”. Even though much of this rhyme isn’t real English words and the phrases don’t make sense, it does rhyme, so it sounds good together and flows well. The words themselves aren’t what give it meaning, instead it is the context in which they are used. And there is variation among this rhyme as well, as I have heard the last line said as “and you are ‘it’” or “and you are not ‘it’” in different situations. Games are fun for children when they are perceived as fair, so little rhymes and other things like this have developed as a way to ensure fairness while also allowing the games themselves to continue. Even if you don’t want to be “it” and put up a fuss, you can’t really argue with “eenie meenie miney moe.” And this rhyme is short and easy to remember and learn, which explains its spread and continued use across long periods of time (at least from when my informant was a kid a few decades ago to when I was a kid about a decade ago).