Children walk to school by one of two roads. Each road rises from the flats and ends at the school’s gates. The road that rises from the Bay side we call the back way. A couple of days ago, I drove to school, taking the back way, and as I zipped up the hill, I noticed a boy sporting over-sized sweat pants and blonde dreads. He was walking backward down hill.
I slowed, stopped, then reversed. In a second, I had pulled side by side. The hair, hung forward over his face, but I recognized him as a fifth grader in Ms. Craig’s class.
He didn’t respond so I pulled over, hopped out and approached. Green eyes looked up, welled up, and looked down. He resumed his backward descent. I started walking backward with him, hoping a clue about next steps might descend from above.
The playground gate stood open about fifty yards up hill. I looked back over my shoulder to see where we might be heading. I could see the back door to his aunt’s apartment, opened, but dark.
We walked without talking for half a minute. Then, I spoke up. Ethan, can you fill me in? Where are we going?
The boy stopped and so did I. We both stood underneath a big oak tree – the only tree that remained along the side of the back way. I didn’t look at my watch, but I felt minutes slipping by. Ethan then pulled a smudged and folded piece of card stock from his small T-shirt pocket. On top of the folded page, in Ethan’s uneven cursive: Backward Spell.
Nothing is working out. We have to move. My aunt can’t find a new job and they want to move us by the end of next week. This spell is supposed to turn things around. Now, since I’m talking to you, I think I have to start from the top again. Great, said I. I happen to be going that way. Maybe, while we walk, you can tell me whatever you want me to know.
Words spilled out about the many broken things, how they got broken, how he and his aunt and his little brother had tried plan after plan. I shared with him what I knew about reaching out, missing, doubting, and searching for light by different paths. Sometimes, even right things seem wrong. You find yourself retreating before you’ve taken a first step.
We can’t make change happen that way. You have to keep moving.
We walked through the gate and onto the playground. With morning recess in mid flight, red balls flew and jump ropes slapped wet blacktop. We wound our way through games and good mornings. I said to him – let me see what I can do.
He stepped into a four square game and I vanished through the double doors. I had wanted to tell him more – that we have only onward. Backward, dear Ethan, is no more than a different way of moving on. Hopes vanish in the smoke of magic charms. Give them over to the unanticipated – the inexplicable – that arrives on its own terms and gives us just enough to carry us over.
You’re worth the time, kid. I’ll do the best I can.