David, a five year old, walked through the back gate of the school. He held up five fingers to show the number of superpowers he had the day. Each day, he’d report a different number, but no matter. Four one day, six another. He just wanted me to know he had things covered should he need that extra boost. I watched him elbow his way into the mix around the play structure as his day began.
This need for superpower – and the practice of reporting the count to me each morning -began months ago, after the second day of school. On that day, he looked up and said “I’m going home.” It seemed he had done his on-the-ground assessment and had come up short. I remember him cinching up his jeans, pulling his knit cap low, and taking two steps toward the gate. But, instead of leaving, he stopped, got quiet, and sat on the bench looking at his shoes.
The next day, his superpowers arrived.
Problem solved, I thought. Then, a week ago, he hit another bump. A classmate, noting the straight black hair that ran to the middle of David’s back, called him out. “Hey, how come you got long hair like a girl?” Superpowers shorted out and David now stood before me: “I’m going home.” Two steps toward the gate once again and again he sat. We had a set back.
However, David had been, through these early months, transforming himself. He invented games each day which had roped in six or seven kindergarten boys who followed him to all parts of the playground. In his games he led them through swamps, into volcanoes, and on hunts to capture the blue alligator. With his hidden reserves , he had the power to flatten every enemy. My heart broke when I saw him with his head hanging and his spirit snuffed.
Dan Mulhern, author of Everyday Leadership, often incites people to lead with their best selves. He says a leader’s fundamental purpose in serving people is “to protect their life and love their spirits.” I believe these words to the core and used them to guide my next steps with David:
I decided to intervene as I made up a story about the Fire Man. Fire Man, I told him, could take you by the hands, spin you around, and fill you with fire. Fingers, hands, arms, and then into the heart. Heat and light would work through every dark spot, chasing out the darkness. Fire Man showed up when you needed him. All you had to do was ask.
Not one to stand on ceremony, the boy held up both hands, grinning. He declared that I was the Fire Man, so I took both his hands and gave him five spins. “Fire Man! Fire Man!” David hollared He gave out one piercing howl and I set him down. He looked up, grinned, and said thanks. He then took off toward the play structure, chased by three of his classmates.
Old tale ends. New story begins.
You know how it goes on this playground. I got the gift wrapped in this turn of events – an extra boost from a fire that showed me that I am as small as I decide, or as free as I choose. To lead with my best self, I have to burn out the old. I saw for myself what is possible for the boy, and for the man he will one day become.