Prison Rules on the Playground


Awhile back, my daughter was having an issue with a friend.  This child pegged my daughter as a BFF.  Initially, Harper was on board with it… As time passed, though, it would be apparent that this child was a nightmare.  She would cry when she didn’t get her way, push and shove Harper, and revert to saying unkind things if she didn’t have complete control all the time…

Secretly I called her Nellie Oleson…


But… Really… She was way worse.

Her parents thought everything this child did was cute and had a “kids-will- be- kids kind of attitude” which aggravated the situation more.  And by situation… I mean ME!

Now, advice books, and parenting blogs and local “Parental Nurturing” classes at the Learning Annex will tell you “to include everyone in your child’s play” and “Children need to be given the proper tools for unwarranted disagreements in the field of life”.   Proper tools? Unwarranted disagreements?  No.  The only advice I needed was from a convicted felon named T-Bone Jackson.

When I was a fourteen-year-old teenager living in Alaska, my parents befriended T-Bone.  We hadn’t lived in Alaska for very long when T-Bone showed up at our front door, frozen and in need of cash.  My Dad was a Southern Baptist minister and my mother was a teacher.

Despite being homeless, and having several run-ins with the law, T-Bone was quite pleasant… He became a loose extension of our family for a while. My mother would drive T-Bone around… To the Social Security Office… To the Unemployment Office… To the Men’s Shelter.

He sat next to me in the minivan and we would talk about all sorts of things.  It was on one of these ride-alongs that T-Bone would often impart advice to me.  Most of the time it was the run-of-the-mill obvious advice like… “Don’t do drugs,” and “Don’t trust the government;” or “stay in school” and “don’t try to outwit the Vietnamese.”

But one day, after no particular prompting, T-Bone said.  “Don’t you ever go to prison, Amy.  You’d never survive it.”

“Whatever,” I said, blowing him off.  “I would never end up in jail T-Bone.”

And I had no reason to believe that I would.  I was enrolled in mostly advanced classes in my high school.  I’d won First Prize giving a presentation on table setting at a 4-H Fair.  I achieved the highest honor awarded in the state drama competition playing the role of Helen Keller.

“Not about doing good or bad,” he said, like he was talking to a mindless rube… ” A person can wind up in the can for any sort of thing.  All I did was flee the United States Military and protest on the steps of a federal building… They hauled me off… But…I did okay in prison.  That’s because I had it in me…  But you…. You’d fail there.  Keep your nose clean  That’s all I’m sayin.  Those prisoners would eat you alive.”

“I’d do fine in prison.” I informed him, offended by such an assessment. “People like me.”

“Yeah, That’s the problem girl. You be Miss Nicety Nice… Talk’n all the time……But in the penitentiary, whoa girl… No ones gonna give you a cookie for acting all Little Miss Muffet… You want to have a  friend in prison?  Pick up the good book and talk to Jesus… Jesus be your only true friend in prison.. He’s nice-and-quiet… Gotta keep to yourself in prison… If you gonna be chatty?… instead of gettin’ a cookie, you best be ready to be the cookie.”

“Whatever,” I told him, taken aback.

“And don’t let anyone give you no prison tattoo.  You’ll end up tied to the White supremacists.”

I promised T-Bone that day that I would never go to prison and I would never join a white supremacist gang.

But something more stuck with me… The idea of keeping to yourself.. Taking things in… Not being too quick to be everybody’s friend.  It was the calculating idea of assessing a situation before running full-force into it.  T-Bone had said it simply, but I used his advice when entering new jobs… When trying something I had never done before, and I found that it worked.

Twenty-five years later… Lost and unsure how to advise my child… I  passed his advice down to my daughter…

While it might not be the most politically correct way to look at childhood… If a person really stands back and takes a long look at the playground… They will see similarities with a prison yard.

I’ve taken T-Bones observations and added a few of my own.  Hope this helps.  I call it:

Prison Rules: 

How to survive elementary school.

1)  Keep to yourself.

This was T-Bone’s first instruction and it still stands.  Keeping to oneself gives a person a chance to assess the situation.  Don’t rush up on people.  It scares them.  WAIT… Don’t force yourself into the Barbie play-a-thon.  Think like a criminal.  Ask your child the same thing I asked my child… What would John Gotti do?  Would he force himself into a game of cartoon tag?  Would the man that the FBI would call “The Teflon Don” ask in a whiney voice… “please guys… let ME be the Red Rover this time…”  NO!!!  John Gotti would NEVER DO THAT!  Neither should your child.  Your child should stand back against the fence… stalking the situation… Teach your child, as I taught mine to walk up to a group of kids with a kind of loose swagger, holding a toothpick in her sweet mouth and say… “You got room for another?”  If the answer is yes,  Joy!  If the answer is no, your child should shrug and say something like.. “No matter to me,” then head back to the fence.


2) Don’t be too chatty.

Wow.  This is a given.  Loose lips sink ships.  Some people… Like experts in the field… will talk about communicating, the sharing of feelings…  Don’t do it!  It’s a terrible idea.  Whenever people start “sharing feelings” that leads to vulnerability, which leads to a knuckle sandwich… Swallow your feelings.  Work them out in therapy later…  But on the playground…  Be quiet.  Silence is fierce.  That’s why all the gurus, Gandhi (also an inmate), Nelson Mandela (did 30 years) value silence.  Silence is golden.  Teach your child to be quiet and watch… Your child will be happier than a child who talks constantly.  Dakota Fanning and her prosaic observations are only funny in the movies.  In real life, they would earn her a good punch.


3) Trade up.


I can’t say enough about this one.  Prisoners who can successfully trade up manage a life of significantly more ease than the ones who can’t.  You have a pack of smokes in prison?  That could get you a full set of toiletries… It’s the same on the playground.  Don’t ever trade a good ham-and-cheese sandwich for a packet of Necco Wafers.  Necco Wafers are THE MOST DISGUSTING CANDY  ever made.  A sandwich should go for no less than three Oreos.  Three Oreos should go for no less than a Snickers.  A Snickers should get your child a hall pass.  Do you understand how this works?  Have you sat down and really watched Good Fellas with your child?  If not, you need to do that.



4) Have a skill.

In prison, having a skill can mean the difference between a cushy job in the prison library and a horrible job cleaning latrines… What can your child bring to the playground that another child can’t?  Can your daughter braid hair?  Better yet… Can she braid a fancy braid like Elsa’s hair in Frozen?  She could become quite a friend magnet if she can do this.  Can your son effectively make arm farts?  Have you taught him that?   That’s a skill every young boy desires.  Will your son one day go to West Point?  It’s skills like this that will pave the way for that path… And if by some chance your son ends up in prison, this will serve him there too.  Prisoners love arm farts.


5) Get busy living or get busy dying.


Alright… T-Bone didn’t give me this one.  I got this one from The Shawshank Redemption.  But… It’s worth saying.  In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne was a man wrongly accused of a crime… But he understood deep in his heart that freedom was something that could be found anywhere.  Bartering for beers while tarring a prison roof… Blasting Opera music out into the prison yard even though it meant time in the hole… Andy Dufresne had the kind of freedom in prison that most people don’t enjoy on the outside.  So should your  child.  It’s all a mindset.

This is good advice on how to survive prison.  It’s also good advice on how to survive school.

I may not be a doctor, or a psychologist, or an expert of any sort… But I am a Blogger.  And I did once have a good friend named T-Bone Jackson.

I’m proud to say… Harper still hasn’t gotten any prison tattoos.

Playground Politics

My earliest memory of politics came during the presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. There was a girl named Misty in my first-grade class in Texas who was a master of the playground. To this day, I still have a clear vision of Misty pumping her legs back and forth on the swing set, chanting… “Reagan! Reagan! He’s our man! Carter belongs in the garbage can!”


I remember Misty getting riled up during milk break, once. “Man, I wish I could vote,” she said. “If Jimmy Carter keeps being President, our cars won’t have any gas.” I remember being troubled by her statement. we lived in a small town then, and the closest Pizza Hut was a good 40 minute car ride away. I had never cared about politics until that moment when I realized my own enjoyment of supreme pizza and a good game of Ms. Pacman might be threatened.


The day Ronald Reagan claimed his victory, Misty came into class elated and declared to all of us… “That peanut farmer finally got the kick in the nuts he deserved.”


So, it really shouldn’t have surprised me when Harper came home from her first day of first-grade having had an intense political conversation with a playmate.

Me:  So, who do you sit next to in school?
Harp:  A boy I just met this year. He said Barack Obama is a liar. Is that true?
Me:  What? No! That…That is not a nice thing to say.
Harp: I told him George Bush is a liar.
Me: OK, well…Also not nice. What’d he say?
Harp: He says George Bush chopped down a cherry tree. Is that true?
Me: Wrong Geor…Nevermind. No, not true.
Harp: His sister says they are going to give Barack Obama a peach and then he will move out of the White House. Is that true? They aren’t going to give Barack Obama a peach, are they mommy? You know how much I love him.
Me: What?!?! OH… Impeach him… No. No one is giving Barack Obama a peach.
Harp: I told him we went to the Ronald Reagan library this summer and he didn’t even know who Ronald Reagan was.
Me: (Stunned) And this kid has the audacity to call himself a republican?


For those who don’t know… Los Angeles might be the most liberal city in America, but just North of the San Fernando Valley lies every young republican’s mecca… The Ronald Reagan Memorial Library in Simi Valley, California.


My friend Jolene was visiting with her kids (Marina and Spencer) from San Diego, so we all ventured deep into the heart of republica-ville, that shining city on a hill, Simi Valley!

The powers that created this wonderland took Reagan’s words literally. The library is smack dab on top of a large hill. Lights ablaze, it is a shining city on a hill, or at least a shining building. As we wound our way up Mount Reagan, Jolene (a fan of Reagan) took a moment to say… “I’m really excited about this. We should enjoy learning about the California Governor and former President… And not be too sarcastic about it as we go through.”

Clearly, that remark was meant for me, a liberal…. But in all sincerity, I had no desire to be cynical about the former President. His life is an important part of history. And in my child’s mind, he was responsible for a lot of the pizza I ate in the 80s.

Harper, Marina, and Spencer were all excited about the trip. They had never heard of Ronald Reagan and I thought of teaching them Misty’s swing set chant, so they could say it loudly as we explored… But I thought of Jolene’s words and decided to stay quiet.

Here is a picture of them in front of a Bronze statue of The Gipper:


And here is another one of them looking distinguished in front of the Presidential Seal:


The Reagan Library is large and takes around five hours to go through. Yowch! You heard me right. It is HUUGGGEEE!!!

It starts at his childhood and has actual essays and homework assignments completed by Ronald Reagan. There’s even an old yearbook he signed showing he was always the master of the one-liner… “Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music,” he wrote to a friend in high school. Smooth.

As I ruffled through Reagan’s clothes, his books, his military letters and private trinkets from his young adulthood… I thought of my own death and how one day someone might be ruffling through my own historical items…What kind of things might they find?

All the boxes of uneaten Nutri-sytem stored in my garage…
All the different scented candles…
My old porcelain clown collection…

What had I written in someone’s yearbook? Nothing as good as what Ronald Reagan wrote… “Life is Grand…One sweet song… Start the music!”

I couldn’t remember anything I’d written in a yearbook. Maybe… “You are totally tubular!” Or “Wow! Can’t wait til we are all 21 and drinking Zimas together!”

The Reagan Library was making me feel uncomfortable… Like I needed to start saying more positive things, and writing it down on people’s stuff… And also cleaning out everything in my house… I really needed to get my crap together. I may not ever have my own library when I die… But someone will certainly go through my stuff, and what will they find?!?!? I do have a gratitude journal… But most of the items I’m grateful for are things like… The smell of bacon… and Coffee from a French Press. I need to start being thankful for bigger more important things!!!



It was around this time of my anxiety attack, that we entered the area of the recreated Berlin Wall. Kids can run and play amidst a large re-creation inside the museum… There are holes in the wall so people climb back and forth exploring it… I wonder if the original planners of the museum envisioned people reenacting East and West Germany… Sneaking from one side to the next… trying to avoid gunshot or life imprisonment and/or torture…


But the kids just chased each other and hid around it. At one point, while Harper, Marina, and Spencer were running and playing around the remains of the Berlin Wall, Harper stopped for a moment, and said… “Why would Ronald Reagan want to tear down this wall? It’s so much fun! I love this wall!!!!” Spencer also piped up and said, “I love the Berlin Wall! The Berlin Wall is my favorite wall!”

Moving on to the next section, was a large area dedicated to the threat of communism throughout history. Large pictures of Chairman Mao, Stalin, and Castro looking angry are blown up in a dark room and backlit.
“These guys are mean!” Harper said, having never been told about any of them. “They don’t like to smile,” Spencer observed. And in truth, the pictures of the despots really show them at their worst. There are no pictures of Kim Jung Il enjoying a nice plate of Korean BBQ with his family. And no photos of Moammar Gadhafi laughing as he throws back a cold brew with his buddies Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

While Spencer and Harper sat quietly in a corner watching a movie about the Arms Race, I took a moment to explore various artifacts from that era, which highlighted meetings and conversations between Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev. I was reading a hand-written thank you note to Ronald Reagan from a former Russian prisoner, when Harper walked up to me, and with a solemn face said… “If you get pregnant in Russia, they’ll put you in jail.”

“No, they won’t, Harper,” I said. “You could always get pregnant in Russia. It’s never been illegal to get pregnant.”

“Yes it was!” she told me. “I heard it on the old telephone.”

I saw then, that Harper and Spencer had been listening to “Testimonies from the Gulag.” This is a section of the museum featuring stories from people who had survived the Soviet labor camp.

When I walked over, Spencer was listening to one of the testimonies as well. “Miss Amy,” he said…. “These are just like the old-timey phones you used to use when you were a kid. It’s like we’re in the old days again.”


As we exited the Communism Section, Spencer turned to a museum full of people and in a loud voice he raised his hands in the air and shouted, “I HATE RUSSIA! I HATE RUSSIA!” Mission accomplished, Reagan Library!

“No you don’t,” Jolene quickly corrected him. “None of us hates Russia. None of us hates anyone. It’s just a place full of people like us.”

We rushed out of that section and into an area where Nancy Reagan’s ball gowns were displayed and also the game boards featuring her JUST SAY NO (to drugs) campaign.


I was reminded of a performance I saw in high school during a pep assembly, when a group of men too old to be Rock Stars, but too young to be parents, showed up dressed like Def Leppard and announced. “Nancy Reagan sent us here to play some rock- and- roll for you kids and tell you to JUST SAY NO!!!” The band played thirty minutes of unmemorable music, but I remember the drummer had drum sticks that looked like skeleton bones. I don’t remember much about the concert, but I do know I’ve never had a drug problem. Thank you, Nancy Reagan.

Our tour ended in a large and beautiful hangar, which houses the actual Air Force One used by Reagan and Carter (the nut-crunching peanut farmer).


We toured the plane, which was interesting and stocked with jelly beans (Reagan’s favorite candy). At the end, we sat down and had some nice refreshing bottled beverages called LENIN-ADE another homage to the threat of communism.



The trip to the Reagan library was more than I expected. It wasn’t just a historical tour, it was like walking back in time, and remembering some moments in life that I had forgotten.

The Reagan Library concludes with the handwritten letter Ronald Reagan wrote once he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He famously says… “I will now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

I thought of all the people I remembered as I walked through the Reagan Library, people in my childhood, my teenage years… All of us moving toward the sunset of our lives. As we drove away, I told Jolene about Misty, and we laughed and all paid homage to that young republican.