Late yesterday, I stood on the empty playground at the foot of the tetherball pole, talking to myself about cutting the pole down. “That’s it!” I said. In my right hand, I held a hacksaw. The job I had in mind would require about five minutes.
Even before yesterday, however, I had closed book on tetherball. Something intrinsic to the game didn’t work for me. One fourth grade girl in particular, Jamilla, brought it home. She could smack that hapless yellow bag of blues with such vengeance that she had become“Jamilla the Killa” to neighborhood kids.
A couple of things about Jamilla: When she connected with the ball, her braids leaped up like snake heads. If no one blocked her shot, it could spiral up with enough speed to ring the pole like a chime as it slapped the top.
And one more fact: Jamilla did not smile. Not when she played. Not at any other time. Instead, she winced, grunted and flashed a couple of teeth on the left side. When she played, her face stayed fixed. I had coaxed her to ease up and ordered her to sit out matches. I tried to buddy her up with seven year olds. None of these tactics touched that clenched fist within her. She was working some deep beads, to borrow from one of my Buddhist friends.
Yesterday morning, I stepped onto the playground just in time to see her – surprise! – in the heat of another tetherball death match. Before I could get my whistle to my lips, proud Tanya, took the blunt impact of Jamilla’s high speed round house. Stunned and vanquished, the opponent sat in silence. As I approached, she sat on the blacktop, blinking, not seeing.
Overall, I saw this game sitting at the root of a lot of bad things. I wanted to purge the playground of such potentials for conflict. My head spun with sweeping changes. Then, halfway into this mental tumble, I caught myself: Really Principal? Is this how you get it done? By cutting down a pole or roping off a slide? What do you want to achieve?
I didn’t want the kids to habituate violence. Bottom line. Change the way they play and they’ll learn a better way – a catchy logo I remember reading.
Then, yesterday afternoon, hacksaw in hand, a confusing memory floated up – an argument with my school counselor from years back: “Such a do-gooder, trying to change the world. Maybe people don’t want your input. You can love them but you can’t make them change. You’re wasting your time.”
I have to try. That’s why I’m here!
The counselor spat back, “What gives you the right? You don’t even know these kids and you want to change them. See them first.” I got quiet and the conversation trailed off. . .
When I returned from this reverie, I found myself putting the saw back in the custodian’s tool closet. Time to practice letting go.
Now, this morning, I am looking at the pole from the upstairs window, and I can feel it looking back: “I see you there. Don’t think I don’t.” A smirking invitation to revisit the question of destiny. Want to make things change? Then admit you may not know why, which, or how. The wish is for hands big enough to hold these pieces together while the questioning parts of me ask:
Is it something I must do, or nothing at all?