Too Many Sticks: Losing the fight against fifth-grade fascism

PHOTO: Tim Regan, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

As warm winds blow and winter snow melts into vernal rebirth I am reminded of springtime in the fifth grade when the fascists won the war.

It was April of 1991. A championship for our Minnesota Twins seemed as unlikely as the fall of the democratic republic my friends and I created on the Cherry School playground.

Beyond the merry-go-round where the taconite tailings ebbed into grass stood an acre of aspen and brush considered off limits to students like us. A small coterie, myself among them, conducted incursions into this tempting frontier. Meanwhile, allies distracted Emma, the recess attendant, with coordinated acts of minor mischief and empty conversation.

We cut paths through long grass, establishing the topography of our illegal refuge. We found a natural bowl-shaped hollow under the berm that separated school property from the ditch and pavement of Tamminen Road. Here we found ourselves hidden from view of the school with a sentry’s view of cars coming in and out of the school. Mothers in Astro vans retrieved sick comrades. Delivery trucks hauled lunchroom gruel to the loading dock. To control this location was to know the workings of the school even before our principal.

More than that, we found something so often denied the second-oldest group of children on the playground. We found power. Self-determination. We tasted a future that belonged to us.

These early sorties led to inevitable capture. We were told of the lawlessness that would not be tolerated beyond Emma’s watchful eye. From this we hatched an audacious notion. We children of good reputation and academic merit would barter our credibility for the right to occupy what we called The Woods.

It was called the Contract. I don’t recall whether it was my handwriting or another’s that formed its clauses. But I called out the provisions, the rules by which we would live to hold this sacred ground. No fighting. No breaking rules. And most importantly, freedom for all who enter. No one would be excluded.

When the screed was ready we called Mr. Larson, the principal, over to our lunch table. We made our case. We showed him the Contract. Larson told a kid to lean forward and hold still. Using the kid’s back as a desk, the principal signed his name with a flourish next to our own crude signatures.

The republic was born.

We then brandished The Contract as settled law. Now we entered The Woods with impunity. We stored our legal document in a Ziploc bag shoved down a Hole of Safe Keeping. Each day we checked it for moisture damage, posting a guard every recess period.

The Woods grew busy. New people teemed along our paths, kids of all ages. But it was the sixth grade boys who seemed to take most notice in what The Woods had to offer. These boys were a different sort. It wasn’t their idea to come out here, and it wasn’t their work that won the right to do so. Rather, they liked sticks. One of them had a pocket knife and whittled those sticks to a point.

We informed them through proper channels that doing so was a violation of The Contract. These sticks could endanger the tenuous agreement with Mr. Larson. But such talk fell on deaf ears. Well, I supposed, every republic needs an army. Perhaps this is ours. They agreed.

In this we repeated the same mistake made by thousands of leaders before us, a crime of hubris. We believed that when our the essence of our republic was truly threatened that the army would be on our side. We thought the document sealed in the Ziplock bag, protected in the Hole of Safe Keeping, would compel our glorified mercenaries to obey our orders. Such are the foolish notions of youth.

It was only when we found ourselves surrounded by the sixth grade boys, the points of their sticks aimed at us, that we realized our fragility.

Sticks are for poking. That’s all they’re good for and all they’ll ever do. Threats to poke will always lead to poking. Poking begets more sticks, more poking. Most only lament this condition when they are on the poky side of the stick. The rest are called fools. Perhaps they are.

The fall was sudden. Our faction quickly divided. Some of my friends raised arms against the newfound enemy, while others fled The Woods for help. The same fate met all signers of the original Contract, however. Lined up against Emma’s wall of punishment, we watched Mr. Larson emerge from our well-trod trails with an arm full of makeshift spears. He dropped them to the ground before us with a shameful clatter.

“Those aren’t ours.”

Well, most of them weren’t ours.

Later that day, we pled our case to one of our teachers. “We have a contract,” I remember saying.

“Well,” said an incredulous Mrs. Bloomquist. “I suppose that contract will have to be burned.”

Ultimately, the only true release from the grim aftermath of our fallen democracy came with our eventual passage to the upper grades where recess was abolished. The memories of the war faded as we were taught that no such thing could ever really happen in America.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 26, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Joe musich says

    Oh no ! The two sides of boyhood. The malevolence and the marvelous. May we reach for one and totally abandon the other. A pile of pokey sticks could bring heat in the winter or prop up tomato plants when the marvelous is cultivated.

  2. Adorable

  3. David Kannas says

    This is reminiscent of a club that a few neighbor kids formed in Balsam in the fifties. We called ourselves the Jackpine Boys. With the help of an older boy, we built a club house and pulled it with someone’s tractor to a spot under jackpines on my grand parents’ farm. We elected officers and collected dues. We met on given days to discuss items of import like whether to buy sugar to add to the choke cherrie wine we had concocted. There was no marauding band of older boys to attack what we had started. I think we just faded away as we grew older. The meeting minutes still remain and are in the hands of one the club members today. Thank you for the memory of a better plpace and time.

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