Sunday! I dumped the contents of my shoulder bag on the rug. Time to cast out the week past. Tomorrow would permit space for itself alone. Such was my thought as I poked through the artifacts at my feet. Then, I found a plastic eight ball, smaller than the real thing, but hard and heavy nonetheless. I cradled it in my palm. How did I come by this thing? Ahh! Snatched four days ago from a stubborn fourth grader named Bernard.
He had hurled this object into the fleshy backside of a fleeing classmate named Henry. Or so I later heard. What I remember was a verbal exchange: Henry called Bernard a skinny weasel. Then, before I could turn, I recall a loud smack – the kind a wooden spoon makes when it slaps cold ham. I spun to seen Henry gripping his back side and wincing as the yard teacher, Ms. Nelson, used a wall-of-sound to order Bernard off the blacktop.
“Go to the office! Now!”
The bell rang, lines formed, and Henry limped from the playground. Bernard, however, remained fixed as Ms. Nelson repeated her directive. “Now!” she bellowed to which he replied with a forceful “No!” They stood face-to-face until Ms. Nelson noted my approach:
“Oh, good! You’re here. You can have this! He threw this ball at Henry. He’s all yours.” She handed the bauble to me. I dropped it my pocket. I said “thanks” and nodded too-dah-loo. Then, we were two. Bernard’s long bangs whipped over his hooded eyes. Tears streamed down both his cheeks. Gritty fingernails bit into flesh of pale palms. Sniffles, the feint clang of my key chain and the dull moan of chilled wind punctuated silence on the empty blacktop.
He could lash out if provoked, so I hung back to observe. He kept his eyes fixed forward but his fists eased. A seagull swept over and landed a few yards off, plucking at snack mix scattered not far from Bernard’s feet.
“Just the three of us out here, Bernard. What’s your next move?”
He said nothing, but when he turned to face me, I got it. He had no next move. He had gotten as far as the “No”, but that was the extent of his planning. Six more seagulls descended, and I suggested to Bernard that a vast multitude hovered nearby.
“Lots of birds out here. They look hungry. Wouldn’t want to leave you out here by yourself. Let’s walk.”
Bernard. Bernard. Whatever you may think about fate and free will, a child’s name does not arrive by accident. I can’t speak to the logistics in such naming, but this boy proved an unwitting example. Bernard means bravery and willfulness. There, amidst a gathering flock of eager gulls stood a most perfect Bernard, uninformed about how one might yield.
An out. An out. A child must have an out. Strip away grace and you leave him stranded, without a bridge between the here and any other place.
Bernard accepted my invitation. I didn’t forget the eight ball, but as we departed together, I became curious about how he might explain himself – or justify this spectacle of refusal that so many had seen. His few muttered words mixed with my thoughts and a fragment from a Neal Cassady poem – that we rise from our suffer-couches through gentle fog.
Navigate not with backs turned, but in constant, forward-facing communion. “No” must not forget that “Yes” will ever be its kissing cousin.