Ten-tag sounds like a simple game, and in many ways, it is a simple game, but for a skinny, weak, nine-year-old boy who is trying to figure out who he is and what’s important, ten-tag can be a daily challenge.
The cement-covered lot where the boys played was like a Roman arena of sorts. It sat between a house at the top of Grove Street and the school itself at the bottom of that same short street. The homeowner’s wooden fence served as the top, northern barrier; the school wall acted as the barrier on the east side; and a shorter, wooden fence separated the bottom, southern end of the lot from another school wall. Thus, anyone who was too timid to play but wanted to watch had to stand to the west on the sidewalk and look over the iron rail that separated the participants from the bystanders. Jimmy was too afraid to not play and too timid to play well.
The boys who played ten-tag ranged from third grade to sixth grade, but most of the serious players were in the fifth and sixth grades. Jimmy never played as a third-grader, but when some of his fourth-grade buddies began to climb over or under the iron rail, they encouraged him to give it a try.
The game usually began with a sixth-grader in the middle and everyone else near the fence at the top. When this designated sixth-grader said “One, two, three, go,” the mob rushed to the bottom fence and tried to avoid being caught. The goal of the boy in the middle was to grab one other boy rushing by and hold on to him up to the count of ten. If the captured boy broke free before the count of ten, he could run to the safety of the bottom fence, but if he did not escape, then he and the first boy would each try to capture another as the mob ran on the signal back up the slight incline. The game continued until most of boys had been captured by the others and only the biggest and strongest were still running free. The last one captured by the mob “won” the game, and he became the solitary boy in the center of the next game.
As a classic, skinny weakling, Jimmy loved the early rounds because he could easily race across the far edges of the lot and avoid capture. As the number of boys in the center increased, however, he would inevitably be grabbed, and that’s when his dilemma began. If he gave in easily to his capturer, his run would be over, and he’d have to attempt the even more difficult task: catching others as they ran by. However, if he resisted and tried to escape, the tussle could get physical and ugly. Jimmy wasn’t good at physical and ugly, yet the same situation occurred once he was in the middle. He could try to catch a small kid who wouldn’t resist, or he could try to go after someone his own size and struggle with him. Jimmy simply preferred the running and dodging part of the game to the grabbing and wrestling part of the game.
On this particular day, Jimmy miscalculated — twice. When a skinny sixth-grader grabbed him, Jimmy was all set to give up when he noticed the older boy’s grasp wasn’t that tight, and Jimmy wiggled free. As he did so, however, he got turned around and was facing the wrong direction. Jimmy’s temporary confusion gave the surprised, older boy a chance to recover, and rather than simply grab Jimmy again, the boy banged Jimmy against the brick school wall, wrapped him in a bear hug, and quickly recited the game’s prayer: “one, tw-, th, fo, fi, sx, sev, eit, ni, ten, ten tag!”
Jimmy’s shoulder ached from the bump against the wall, but he couldn’t dwell on the pain because soon he was in the center with the others rushing at him. Somewhat educated and emboldened by the pinning technique, Jimmy tried to force one of the smaller fifth-graders into the wall where he hoped to execute the same bear-hug maneuver that had just led to his capture. Once again, though, Jimmy was overmatched. When he bumped the kid into the wall, the kid bumped him back and used his strength to break Jimmy’s grasp and escape. In the process, the kid had pushed Jimmy’s right hand against the brick, and though his hand wasn’t bleeding, the red burn stung, and Jimmy was ready to retire for the day. Fortunately, the bell for homeroom rang, so Jimmy grabbed his books and headed inside.
On the way to homeroom, he stopped in the boys’ room to wash his scraped hand and splash water on his face. The game of ten-tag had quickly escalated, like football often did from two-hand touch to tackle, and Jimmy knew he would have to improve his game if he wanted to continue to play. A part of him feared the banging and the wrestling, but another part of him cherished that moment when he had initially escaped from the skinny sixth-grader.
As he sat through the brief homeroom period and his morning classes, Jimmy wondered about his willingness to fight, to struggle, to succeed. Did he have what it took to be a warrior, a conqueror, a survivor? Or would he be merely content to play and be captured easily by others, caught early in the game and destined to be a loser rather than a winner? He had read, of course, about heroes, and in his mind, he imagined himself to be one, but could he really make that transition from imagination to reality?