Kids from the neighborhood, when they first come to school, bring along their street-ruled games. First rule: Stay in until you get flattened. As long as you can stand, you can play. Last long enough and you become a neighborhood titan.

Isaiah – or Isaiah the Thin – was one such titan who could have quit long ago. He had a mouth that never stayed shut, jeans that never stayed up and a big-boy swagger that came on stronger than his eighty pounds warranted.  However, yesterday, when  Kuma’je – Kuma’je the Large – flattened Isaiah the Thin, we thought that would be that..

A crunch from across the yard caught my ear. I turned to see Isaiah face down, left shoe missing, shirt torn, pants yanked. A complete wipe out.  In every previous clash, even if he got dropped, he popped up, cursed, did a few circles of show-time limps, and then returned to the games. This time, a little ring of boys had gathered around. None stooped to pick him up. When I got there, they spat out excuses, whom to blame and so on. Isaiah made not a sound.

I stooped down to check for vital signs and he opened his eyes –  good – made eye contact with me – better. I reached in to help him get up but no – I can do this he said. – and he made as if to stand under his own power. Far from steady, rise he did. He yanked his shirt around, cranked his jeans back up, eyed his scrapes – and caught a shoe one boy tossed him. The circle of boys stepped back. Only the sound of the bell stopped him from going at it again.

When I watch these kids play, I understand their games have high stakes. Failing to stand up serves as proof that they can’t take it. If they can’t take it, then they don’t count. So, even when they should not, they step to the games again. Their resolve takes me back to times where I played on – and others where I quit. Quitting leaves behind questions: What if I had stood up one more time? Would things have turned out some other way?

When (If) Isaiah grows to adulthood, he will not be a big man. He comes from a long line of rail thin men, none of whom tops five-eight, 150 pounds. At some point, he will need to come to terms with his pint size. Given the company he keeps, he may have to find his own way forward when he gets taken down. He shows me a few new tricks that can help me make the best of a good wipe out – how to find that hidden strength that allows me to stand when I thought I no longer could.

Isaiah might be like heroes of old who set out on long journeys full of pride and returned humbled by mistakes, wizened, and stronger thereby. For him and for me, we go through this grind on a hunch that it will lead to better ends. Since we’re both still standing, we have not only risen from each trip-and-fall, but also returned for another round a touch more reflective – and maybe a bit better for it all.

As long as the pains bring these kinds of gains, I’m still in.


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