Matthew, a fast sneakered ten-year old, beat me to the playground this morning. Better to say he bolted across the blacktop. I didn’t try to keep up. He jumped on the monkey bars, and grasped the high bar with his left hand. With blond hair, wiry frame wriggling in a Captain America t-shirt, and near-shredded blue jeans, Matthew came wrapped in a uniform to match his spirit. Recess had begun.
As he swung, he waved with his free hand. “Hey Principal!” His clear, high voice floated across the yard. I headed his direction and heard his voice again, “Where is everybody?”
Good question! I checked my watch. No other classes had come out. Just the two of us so far. “Not sure what’s up. Where’s your class, by the way?” He pointed toward the back steps. A few children started to spill out. However, as he pointed, I noticed a fresh string of temporary tattoos on his left forearm – as many as seven peel-n-stick images extending from elbow to wrist.
“Hey Matthew, what’s up with those tattoos on your arm.” He dropped to the mat, came over to me, and raised his arm out in front of his body.
“You mean these? This is like my whole story.” He pointed to the lightening bolt.
“This one is the beginning. It starts here!”
“OK, but why a lightening bolt?”
Matthew stepped in front of me. “That’s me! I am the lightning bolt!”
“Oh, I get it. So what about the two fish.”
He dropped into story telling as he ran his finger along the second tattoo. Both of us walked to the center of the playground which had become crowded with children. Balls hurtled overhead, jump ropes slapped the asphalt, but I missed all of it, hooked, tattoo by tattoo, from elbow to wrist. Here’s how he pulled the story together:
Two fish swim around a spot in the ocean – the spot where a lightening bolt struck. Then, a mist cloud of three wishes floats up. The cloud comes back in the fourth inking, dropping rain onto a single flower. The flower opens up into a bright star:
“That star stands for what comes next.”
The sixth image is of two eyes. “Eyes that can see everywhere. They look around to make sure everything is cool.” And last he pointed out the biggest tattoo of the set- a shining sun, with orange and purple rays stretching out in all directions.
“My stepdad told me that one day, that will be me. What do you think?”
I scanned the images puzzling at how much he had managed to fit on his forearm. Further questions would have to wait as he took off to join a gathering circle friends on the kickball diamond.
“Oh, hey! See you later!”
So here’s what I make of what I heard: That when a boy wanders into a dark corner, he can use the ink of a well spun story to chase shadows away. Talk ’em up and tell it tall. I also remembered that I am this boy no matter how long I live. Spin your best myth and repeat until you have the right story down pat. It’s the story, inked and spoken, that can lift a child up and lead him to the next step in that long journey home.