This morning, a frantic call came over the office PA system from Ms. Knickerbein, the yard duty teacher. “Tell the principal to come right away! A boy has crawled under the steps and won’t come out!”
She went on about how she had told him to come out FIVE times but I had all I needed and dashed out the door before the call finished. . .
I got to the playground but didn’t have to go far. The yard teacher and a semi-circle of students gathered at the base of the big stairs and when I nudged my way to the front of the pack I saw a child stuffed into a nook below the steps’ lowest landing.
What I could see: a body twisted into an improbable pretzel with unlaced high tops tucked beneath the seat of his shredded sweats. Soot scuffed knees wedged beneath the slab above. T-shirt, green checked drawers, long thin neck and a head rowed in scrappy blond braids completed the picture. It was Ricky, an eight year-old, hiding in plain sight. He used both hands to cover his ears. The rise and fall of his back showed he might have been crying.
“Back up, everybody. Give him some space.” I directed my words to the group – including Ms. Knickerbein.
I took my jacket, looped the sleeves through the stair rails above him, and let the coat hang down over the opening to Ricky’s refuge. Lifting the coat tail, I said “Take as long as you need. I will be here when you’re ready.” Then I stepped back, turned and waved off the spectators another twenty feet. “Nothing to see here. Step back.”
I found myself again in a situation without a clear plan. Ricky had caused a stir. Kids kept elbowing forward to see what either of us might do next. As I stood watching and thinking, Ms. Knickerbein approached. “Well? Are you just going to let him sit there?” Her tone was more than a simple yes or no question. But I played it straight:
“Yes ma’am. For the moment.” Her scan scalded, but then she looked away, leaving me to make mental notes and come up with a better idea.
Here’s what I wondered:
How could a child work himself into a place like this? Yes he could get in, but how might he undo what he had done? I remembered this:
When things don’t make sense, you may not have all the facts. A boy turns away for cause. It follows that he will turn back when he can. I also remembered that trapped energy craves release and energy in motion seeks stillness. Stretch me out or snap me back. What an old colleague used to tell me – “No lectures. Just help me find my way home.”
Ricky sobbed for ten minutes in his self proclaimed black box. Then his skinny body eased its way out. He looked at me for only an instant. Then he sat crossed legged on the blacktop, mouth turn up in a slight grin. His head bobbed, and the tightness in his shoulders eased. The crowd dissipated. Ms. Knickerbein remained for a moment more, and then she stepped away. It became just the two of us.
I asked not a single question. What good would it do? Later we could attend to details. For now, the moment offered up what we each needed.