Big surprises can arrive in quiet ways. That’s how I met my newest fire-starter, Xavier. Ms. Carter brought the curly-haired, big spectacled second grader through my door. Young boy and older woman stood just inside the doorway, waiting for me to look up.

“Excuse me, Principal.” Ms. Carter began. “I found Xavier behind the bungalows, with these.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches. Ah yes. I remembered them well.  She then pulled out a small pile of kindling – random bits of a torn up crayon drawing, a shredded spelling test, and some leaves.

Ms. Carter laid out more than sixty matches, spent and blackened. She told me she had found Xavier doing what he could to start a fire. The boy looked at Ms. Carter  – stout as a fact. He then looked at me. Ms. Carter stepped out and it became my turn to ask some questions. I had just the beginning of what I might need to know.  

First came lies. The standard set: I didn’t do it. My sister stuck the matches in my backpack. I don’t know how they got lit. After a minute squandered in this way, we managed to back-and-forth our way to a version of truth that we both could live with. He had tried to start a fire in the alley behind the building. He knew the building to be made of, dry wood. “Old and dry.” He clarified. Stiff breeze had snuffed his matches at least sixty times.

“Do you have anything you want to tell me?” I asked him. “No, I’m good.” Then we both became quiet.

When I was eight, I played with fire, just like Xavier. I didn’t want to burn things down or make a big scene. I just remember becoming fused with the energy that arises from the act itself. Something primal lives in fire.

Fast forward to now to a context where boys can’t roam, where initiation rituals show up as prohibitions and misdemeanors, and I ask myself how boys sort through the right use of power. With no place to practice, the spark in boyhood just goes dark.

Often, when people talk about freedom, they speak of having freedom from something. Freedom from hate. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from debt. Emma Goldman, on the other hand, talks about “the freedom to.”  Practicing freedom in this affirming way brings about re-alignment of one’s approach to the world. We get better at taking responsibility. Seeing freedom as a ‘to’ and not a ‘from’ can show us how to help boys and girls to become.

Be careful with fire, Xavier. When curious, ask questions. When lost, seek help. Spirit grows from risks, but learn what wisdom means and how to let it in.

I warned the boy that fire was real. It can kill and destroy. Respect it!

I kept his matches and his kindling. I sent him back to class and called his father. “I want to let you know that your son is entering the fire years.” He said thank you, as if we were members of the same tribe.

To this boy, no lies told, no souls crushed. Ahead, a chance to build a different kind of fire. More than that,  my honest wish – for him walk a bright path toward a place different from those that circle around unending boyhoods.

Would that his fires be bright ones to lead us.


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