Two kids, second graders, jockeyed for position the in morning line up, just after the second bell rang. I saw these two boys starting to go at one another, but I was about thirty yards away talking to a parent. Thirty yards seemed like a big distance to close as the taller boy cut his thin shoulder into the littler guy’s torso. The little guy had these big lips that began to quiver. As I pulled up, he was trying to stand tall to make his stand. He started shoving back, demanding his spot.
They were two little men in their drooping jeans, skinny arms, and rooster chests, sticking accusing fingers at the other, getting into it about one another’s mother, who got there first and who would kick whose ass. I separated the boys, listened to their stuff for about three seconds, watched the hot air steam around their heads, and then did what I always do by putting the little guy first, and tall-n-slim second. Case closed, said I.
But the case was not closed. Cases don’t close quite so fast on the playground. I turned as if to leave, but then spun around just to check- and no surprise to me that I found the larger boy with his face up in the smaller boy’s face. Tall-n-slim wanted to brand the little guy in a permanent way.
That’s the way we burn it in when we are young. Who has the power and who has something to prove? What stuck with me on this day wasn’t so much about the boys roughing it up, but about how much it reminded me of two dads challenging each other the night before at a board meeting, getting in one another’s faces, still very much the little men they had been years ago on some playground somewhere. Everything to prove. I have just as many stories among adults that go play out as they do on the playground.
I know that child still lives in me. When an angry parent gets in my face or when I get nudged out in the supermarket line, it all lights up. My options reduce to a kind of stark either-or metric. A Zen priest mentioned yesterday during a sitting that years of meditation can add in a bit of space – re-introduce a split second of choice – to let air back in when it gets smokey. That tells me how, when kids spend time claiming turf, blaming others, and fending off threats, the mark that gets burned in on the playground returns as that part of the psyche that needs to breathe fire in order to feel alive.
What do I witness every day on the playground? If the element is fire then the that asphalt is an anvil events there are the blacksmith’s hammer. I call all of this forward into my present experience as a leader and ask of myself what I hope for others, that I can hear through the smoke and see through the bright orange to the place past the first reactions where silence reigns and water flows.