Two weeks back, I had to pull all balls off the yard during morning recess. The cause: a high stakes form of one-fly-up that began with blasting heavy redballs high over head, and then watching them descend like bombs. Luck held for weeks, but then, a little kindergartner, Melvin got bonked and went down. Game over.

I wanted kids to get exercise, however. So I sought the perfect replacement. Then it came! The sponge ball! I bought twelve of them in playschool colors. Even a direct hit in the kisser from one of these, I thought, could not harm anything but a boy’s pride.

Morning of the first day, I tossed these balls out to a pack of eager fourth graders. They snagged them from mid air the way a hound pulls down a tossed stick and ran to the far side of the playground. Then, as if pre-coded for battle, they faced off in two lines. Assault and reprisal began.

I watched. Bell rang. Injury count, zero. Not bad, thought I as I gathered the red, blue, and yellow into my bag.

But remember this: Whenever you get together people – even the meekest –a jerk will somehow get into the mix. No soft lighting or modern furniture can banish this truth. So, on the third day, a new variable entered: We had a bit of rain. Not much, but enough to leave puddles. And what sponge ball doesn’t like a puddle.

A blonde boy named Max – Maximus Harcourt Witherby III in full – red-faced rumbler with a bad temper and round behind, discovered that by dunking these balls, you had a whole different game. Water bombs flew fast and hit hard. As I chatted with moms, casualties increased. Then I heard Maximus’ cackle. His laugh was always bad news.

I turned in time to see Henry, a thin Asian boy, black hair precision parted down the left side, setting his sights on Max. Henry hurled a slobbering sponge orb with conviction and purpose. Splat! Of course!  A direct hit accompanied by a muddy wet spot eight inches across.  Max, now out, should have stepped aside. A rule is a rule.

You’re out, Henry said. Max refused to yield. I approached and told Max to stand down. No he said – this time to me.

That’s it, I barked. Turn in the balls. We all play the same game or we won’t play at all. Game over. Line up.

As I shoved the balls back into the little net bag, I wondered whether I had handled the situation in a beneficial way or whether the jerk in a boy triggered the jerk in a man.

This evening I am reviewing the rules – real ones and not the ones in the book. I don’t yet understand why the algorithm works as it does. I do know that it takes one. One hero to turn the tide. One leader to take it over the top. One jerk to take it down. Max, on this third day, got to be that jerk.

Open questions as I look toward tomorrow: how do you advance your goals, even with a jerk in the mix? Or when leaders sit it out? How can you move on, even on days when all the heroes have decided to stay in bed? Good questions, I think. I am ready for answers from any source.


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