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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8 Responses to Stand

  1. Kate July 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Woe . . . . this inspired a sigh from deep in my gut. This is no Phoenix rising from the ashes. This is grit, pure and simple. I don’t know what’s harder, watching it (through your story), remembering similar events from childhood, or analyzing it from my current awareness as an adult with a retirement’s fund worth of therapy. Eeeesh! Fast-forward these young lads who further their rituals and suddenly find themselves at 18yrs of age in Afghanistan (or wherever) wondering . . . . what I would give to be back on that playground – or not.

    • greg July 12, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

      There’s also something here about having no where else to turn. There aren’t choices about how to engage the world these little guys run into. They have to go head first or get creamed.

  2. Sylvaine July 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Mmmh…. what a story Greg! Thank you!

  3. Chuck July 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    When I remember my school at that age, no one slapped anyone; the worst was being pushed and that ended quickly with no reprisals. I was smarter than most, so I knew when to stay out of harm’s way, but even among the tougher elements, I never heard of fists being thrown until we were old enough to drink beer and get drunk. Of course, everyone was white.

    • Greg July 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      I find the violence is constant – aggression is constant. These behaviors code shift and take on different forms, but they are as present on the playgrounds of affluent schools – even private schools – as they are on inner city playgrounds. I have only to think of the story that came out during the last presidential campaign about Mitt Romney pinning a young man to the floor and chopping off his hair because it displeased Mitt and his crew. You couldn’t get any richer than that but there it was.

  4. Em July 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    And with that, the princess turned in for what was a delicious night of sleep.

  5. Greg July 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    The thing is this story is about playground football – not boxing. In fact, there wasn’t even a fight involved. There’s a level of aggression that accompanies everything and, in this world, appears normal. These guys don’t know there are other options at this point.

    So, without my saying this was playground football – and just calling it ‘the games’ the point was to allow the grit to have the pervasive quality it does. For these guys everything is like boxing.

    On the flip side, the events that generated this story are three years old and in that past three years, the level of physical aggressive has dropped a great deal. It is now a peaceful yard as compared to the one that was there when I arrived. The next step is about aggression on the psychological and digital playgrounds – a whole new area to explore in these ‘notes from the playground’

  6. Steve July 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    I am an avid reader of Principal John. Notes from the Playground is one the few blogs I read regularly. (Maybe that’s because I haven’t contracted SMADD yet — Social Media Attention Deficit Disorder.) Don’t you dare stop writing those stories or grandpa will be mad! Don’t try to be different, just keep working to be more of who you are.

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