I thought I knew enough about a nine year-old named Manny. A stand-to-the-side kid who didn’t say much. Then, I caught him, his buddy Edgar, and two other kids just inside the school fence last Sunday. His friend Edgar had already been knocked down, and Manny prepared to return fire. He had his black hair combed straight back, flannel shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled, and fists clenched. I saw his rib cage heaving with fight energy ready to pop.
I stepped forward and called Hey! Two outsiders bolted over the chain link and were gone. Manny and his pal paused for an instant. He made eye contact – the first time he ever looked me in the eyes. I got a slight chill. Whoa! Then, these boys also took off. That left me alone on the playground.
Whoa indeed, I had a few questions!
Children are teachers carrying messages. I thought of Manny, for example, as shy, scrawny, and quiet. He tucked his head down as he spoke and tended to back up when grown-ups approached. He was a boy who kept his distance. None of this Sunday encounter lined up with the boy I thought I knew.
I pulled together other observations. While he did not talk much, he did like to build things – towers and houses made from scrap – winding paths from bits of rocks. Most of all, he built bridges. Dozens of them. A calling card from a silent boy. If he’d been to the school grounds over the weekend, I’d find his patchwork everywhere – Sticks, stones, and now I added the prospect of broken bones.
On Monday, I sought him out during the first recess and chose to leave Edgar till another time. He had tucked himself into a “cave” cut out from a huge shrub along the building’s west side. Chosen bits of brick lined a path to the cave’s entrance within which he sat, surrounded by a small ring of children – both boys and girls. What have we here? I wondered. He had carved this space for his circle? Could that be true?
He brown-eye blinked me, but he did not speak. Intense, but not so shy, I thought. Then, he stood up and stepped from the cave.
“You want to talk to me?”
I hadn’t said so, but he was right. So he joined me as we walked the perimeter of the playground. He gave me a short summary of Sunday. Of the boys from down the hill who had come “to do some bad stuff.” No further details provided. He was a protector. He didn’t boast or flash as he spoke. Only a precious few details of a line that had been crossed by strangers.
Manny’s summary: “They aren’t good kids. They don’t belong here.”
At nine, this quiet kid knew a great deal. I reflected upon that boy in me still licking wounds from stumble upon stumble. It took me years to become stronger, and everything that mattered had to fight its way up from within. Had Manny figured out some of this already?
Notes to consider: The shortest pause comes before a sudden surprise. Stillness in a blue jay as it ponders flight is stunning. An entire universe of prospects awaits a sign to step forward. I know little about prospecting in chance or why time chooses a particular child as it leaves another behind.
How much can hide within one shy boy! How much I more I see when I remember to look a second time.