Third visit to the JFK cafeteria: this time for the seventh annual Z-Games, a.k.a the 2011 Northeast Regional Yo-Yo Contest. The room is filled with mostly boys and their families and yo-yos whizzing through series of impossible tricks. As far as I can tell by scrutinizing the kids, yo-yo culture seems to be a cross between gamer-nerd culture and skateboard punk culture. They come from all over New England, toting their tricked out yo-yo cases. We were just visiting, so that Ted, who is new to yo-yo, could see what it’s like when the pros get going. The skills of these kids are jaw dropping. You shouldn’t be able to do that kind of thing with some string and a bit of metal or plastic. And you really shouldn’t be able to do it with two yo-yos at once or with a yo-yo not actually attached to the string.
Yo-yo is hot in Northampton, thanks to the A2Z Science and Learning Store. They offer a drop-in yo-yo school three times a week and sponsor a yo-yo team. They also organize the Z-games.
(Note: I can’t say “yo-yo” without slipping into a laughable imitation of a ‘80s era rapper. And now you can’t either).
We made our way into the yo-yo scene through the elementary school’s afterschool program, taught by one of the guys on the A2Z team. I’d been looking for activities to build Ted’s physical confidence. He eschews sports. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given his genetics, but Chuck has always been quite sporty so we thought he’d follow along. He’s also very anxious about physical activities—biking, swimming, roller skating, ice skating—and tends to believe that if he’s not good at something right off the bat, he won’t get better. The yo-yo class seemed the perfect solution.
Parental schemes are not supposed to work out so well.
He resisted at first, though I still can’t figure out why. We actually had quite a few meltdowns over the subject. He seemed to have created some alternative yo-yo horror in his nutty little head. Fortunately, several of his friends were taking the class too, so I went on faith that this wouldn’t be a disaster.
Ted loved it from the beginning. Hanging out after school with his best friends flinging objects around. What’s not to love? He quickly earned his first yo-yo injury—a black eye from a friend’s misjudged forward pass.
Before long we started going to yo-yo school once a week. The A2Z staff moves aside the toys in the back room and the place fills up with kids flinging yo-yos around. They watch with awe as the yo-yo team members nonchalantly demonstrate the simplest moves and intricate elaborate tricks. I’m not sure Ted actually learns anything here. He kibbitzes with his friends, practices a few tricks, and wanders about choosing toys I won’t let him buy. Yet in spite of what I see, he keeps learning new tricks.
At his first yo-yo session, Ted received a laminated card listing yo-yo skills grouped in three levels, with 10-15 skills per level. You’d recognize some of the tricks, like “sleeper,” “walk the dog,” and “around the world,” but probably not “Buddah’s revenge,” “skin the gerbil,” and “split the atom.” When Ted successfully passes a test for a trick, he gets a punch. The punch card has played brilliantly into my parental scheme. As soon as we bought his first yo-yo, he wanted a cooler, more expensive one. No problem—you test for all the skills in the first level, kid, and I’ll buy you the next yo-yo up. He gets to buy something, and I get to see steady progression.
The testing takes place at yo-yo school. At the end of each session, the staff sets up a table and the kids dutifully line up. He stands before the judge, gets three chances to execute the trick, and must finish with the yo-yo snapping back up into his palm. Watching Ted do this each week has been transformative. He’s not a kid known for his seriousness and his focus, but he steps right up (like a little soldier, as my father would say) and invariably, knocks it out of the park.
My favorite part of yo-yo: Ted and his friends bring their yo-yos to school everyday and practice on the playground. This helps me maintain my belief that Northampton is really a bizarro 1950s America.
My only complaint (other than my fear of taking a yo-yo to the eye) is the lack of girls. We’ve got enough all-male activities, people—get your girls some yo-yos.
Wanna watch? Here’s a YouTube video on the 2011 Z-Games.