My youngest son, With-a-Why, is a shy child, so I try to encourage him whenever he shows any interest in extra-curricular activities. When he came home last week with a flyer advertising a bowling tournament for kids, I was surprised at his eagerness because he has gone bowling maybe four times in his life, but of course, I signed him up. He spends so much time with high school and college students that I welcome any chance for him to spend a morning with kids his own age. As we drove to the bowling alley, I told him the story of how his grandfather used to work setting up pins in a bowling alley when he was a teenager, a noisy job that probably did permanent damage to his ear drums.
Although the name had changed, the bowling alley was the same place where I used to bowl every Friday afternoon in seventh grade. We used to walk from school, right after lunch, and bowl three games, then make it back in time for the school buses. I was a painfully shy kid, just like With-a-Why, and bowling is a good sport for shy kids. You have to keep moving around, because everyone is taking turns, and the alley is so noisy from the crashing pins that no one will really notice if you don't talk much.
Some things in the familiar bowling alley had changed. The scores are done electronically now. I missed the little table with the warm light, the big pieces of paper, and the little yellow pencils. Keeping score was always a good role for a shy child. But everything else seemed the same: the smell of french fries, the racks of black balls, the worn rows of red, white, and blue shoes. Honestly, I don't think they've replaced a single pair of shoes since I was a kid.
The strangest change – and this came as a total surprise – is that bowling seems to have turned into a "boy sport." Over a hundred kids, all between fourth and sixth grade, had signed up for the tournament and yet I counted only five girls in the crowd. When I was a kid, everyone bowled, both girls and boys, and I can remember accompanying my daughter to several birthday parties at bowling alleys. I cannot even begin to guess why there were so few girls. Were they all off at Club Libby Lu, learning to walk in high heels and dress pretty? Was the lack of girls another result of the gender stereotypes unconsciously enforced by younger parents these days? Is bowling, like skiing and snowboarding, like practically every fun sport in our school district, somehow not "girly" enough? Are the parents worried about how their little girls will look in the ugly bowling shoes? How frustrating that even informal sporting events are dominated by boys.
The etiquette of the bowling alley hasn't changed. Parents and grandparents milled about on the carpeted areas or sat at tables eating french fries while the kids got the plastic seats right up near the polished wood lanes. Several of the boys in With-a-Why's lane seemed like experienced bowlers, hitting strike after strike, giving me the impression they had been living in bowling alleys since they were very small. I talked to one boy's grandmother, and she confirmed that yes, her grandson had gone bowling every week for the last seven years. The expertise of his peers did not bother With-a-Why at all, who focused only on his own game, happy as long as he hit down any pins at all. Between turns, he came over to talk to me or to Boy in Black, who had come along to cheer him on. As he grew more comfortable with the situation, he talked quietly to Sparkly Eyes, the shyest of the eight boys.
Sparkly Eyes asked my assistance in buying french fries and shot me shy smiles when I clapped for him but said very little else. ("Mom!" Boy in Black said to me quietly, "You don't clap at bowling alleys. You just don't.") But for the most part, the kids ignored the parents and grandparents completely, acting as if they were invisible. This behavior seemed entirely normal to me, in keeping with what I remembered from my childhood. Of course, the exception was Boy in Black, who was treated by the kids like a celebrity – and an expert on bowling, which he most certainly is not. Apparently, a long-haired teenage boy, half-asleep and dressed in an old black band t-shirt, is way cooler than a parent or grandparent.
Some things don't change.