Lots of what happened to me in grade school has long ago slipped into some recess of my mind. Not gone, maybe, but not active. One of my own fourth grade memories, however, remains in my active consciousness – crisp and still biting. It’s a memory of my school’s playground when I was in fourth grade – of a circle of boys, cruelty, and an example of how bravery can show up even in children.
My grade school had an upper and a lower playground. One day, most of the fourth grade boys peeled away from the rest of the students during recess. I can remember watching my classmates hoof down the broken concrete stairs and I can remember following along. What happened next happened quickly. Boys gathered in a ring around one child in particular. In seconds, Greg stood surrounded by his classmates and then, the school’s second fattest boy, Tim, began calling out Greg as the number one fattest. Bright morning sun, cold air, angry little taunts, and then rock throwing. Greg stood his ground but he had no place to hide and no adult to turn to.
Even then, I got that the school’s second fattest kid had a stake in the outcome of this moment. He drove the chanting and led the rock throwing. Then, the situation flipped when Greg’s best and only friend, Mike, stepped right into the middle of the circle, stood next to Greg, told Tim he was fat too, and told him to go away. The ugly little circle broke up and the boys disbanded to other parts of the yard.
Whenever we start something, end something, try to bring about change, or aim to open doors for something unexpected, I see how all of our actions – causes – end up on an unpredictable game board. This moment from decades ago sent circles out into my life, shaded how I see child’s play, and influenced decisions about the kind of work I have undertaken. I know that other boys have forgotten the event if they noticed it at all.
Last week, I watched a little guy, Jaime, get cut in line by bigger kids. First, a bigger boy cut him and knocked him back to second in line. Then a mid-sized girl. Then another boy and on and on. In thirty seconds, he was dead last. He tugged at the over-long belt on his drooping jeans, turned his cap sideways, and looked down at his high-tops. I jumped in and brought him back to the front of line under a volley of protests. So what had I done? Had I fixed something or just made it worse? Would Jaime remember my action or would it all slip into the little hiding places in his memory?
I have a growing reverence for potential and the real possibility that even tiny events and off-handed comments can reap tremendous effects. To be alive and alert as a witness to how each moment arises from the one that came before – and how each moment sets the stage for that which can’t be predicted – How awesome and also humbling to join in this circle of cause and effect, knowing that just by being present, I have impact.