If you want to know what ‘brave’ looks like in a child, you have to let go of what you think you know. Shrink yourself down to no more than a few feet tall. Take away the cool confidence that comes from experience – the times you stood up, got knocked down, and then stood up again. Take away everything, even the word ‘brave’ itself. At three-foot two, brave may not yet be in your vocabulary.
Two words you might try – by myself – as when James, for example, a four and a half year old, learned the meaning of these two words. He had to take them head just this week when, on Monday before school, his mother left him on the sidewalk of screaming and grimy streets that intersect about ten blocks from the school.
She left him there (she later told me) because she forgot to count the kids as they piled into her car. She further forgot to count as they hopped out in front of the school. She still hadn’t counted when I met them all in front of the school and asked – Where’s James? She stopped, looked and then we counted together.
Panic came next. She made a tight yelp, now leaving the other four children with me. She jumped in her smoking beater of a wagon and sped away. I had images of James, cut off from the rest, an atom among things and beings that were all larger than he. I have no reliable account for what the mother did next. I know only what I saw and felt.
For example, I felt my pulse race as I paced the sidewalk. The heart rate did not slow as I looked down the street where I had last seen the smoking car. To the west, no sign of anyone coming. Then, to the east, past an oak tree and a stop sign, I saw a little boy, James, making his way up the hill, over-sized backpack about as large as he. He had his hands shoved in his pockets, and a little dark cloud hovered over his head. He stopped, looked up, and then entered the school building.
Bravery comes when it has to – when you come face-to-face with something bigger than you. It comes when you sort out the gap between faith and fact, when you look over your shoulder and discover you have only yourself to count on. It comes because the option for its opposite has disappeared. You give up a great deal to acquire bravery – like the dreamy trust in those whom you thought you could count on.
Bravery makes a mark that assures a little boy like James will not forget this day.
The beater came back-firing and barreling up the hill. I met her at the car door and told her that James had gone to class. Take a few minutes before you go in, I told her. You can make things right later. Not now.
A story would grow over this day the way a scab grows over a wound. James would carry forward whatever he needed to – the memory of before and after and the knowledge that he figured out the way all on his own. First steps happen when we learn to lift our chins and take our licks. The greatest gift comes when we learn to do this without closing our hearts.
All in good time, my little man. All in good time.