Each school day, when the day ends, twenty or thirty folks gather outside the back gate. I come to the playground, open the gate and parents step onto the yard to pick up their children. They mingle and chat. Friendly almost always. Connections and reunions abound.
One Friday, however, I got a call on the walkie-talkie. My yard supervisor reached out only when she felt she needed back up. “Can you come down now please? A big kid is hanging by the gate. I don’t recognize him. Something doesn’t feel right here.”
Another kind of reunion awaited.
As I stepped onto the yard, I could see a tall, thin, dark skinned boy. Then, as I got closer, I saw more. Hair in rows, a white tank top and blue jeans worn quite low. “Wait, I know who this is,” I said to myself as I got to the gate.
“Jerome!” I called out. The boy, now an eighth grader, flashed a glimmer of a grin. He had a faint patch of fuzz above his upper lip, kept hands in his pockets, and didn’t look at me head on. I opened the gate and the group poured in, but Jerome stayed outside.
Middle school didn’t let out for another half hour, yet here he stood. Shuffling, awkward, agitated. Beyond being a foot taller, the Jerome that stood before me had journeyed far from the fifth grader I remembered – a light spirit with a high singing voice that lifted us up even on gray days.
“What’s going on?”
I made a gesture toward the empty bench to my left – my unofficial counseling couch. He and I had sat there more than once when he was a student here. Now, however, we found ourselves face to face while parents and children chose other ways out.
“You’re supposed to be in school! You gotta either come in and start talking or get yourself home. I can’t just have you hanging here.”
Upon hearing my words, he stepped toward me. For a second, his face was no more than a foot from mine. A deep view into his eyes brought a transmission of a thousand stories. Then he turned, bumped his way past me and cut out, walking across the busy street and down into the alleys among the apartments below.
When a boy gets dispatched into manhood, that departure can appear to him as doors opening. He might walk forward as if divine interventionists had beckoned him to some special purpose. He might avail himself of countless chances to look back over the path he has taken. “Look what I’ve become,” he might say.
The journey can also commence with a shove followed by sound of doors slamming. No turning back. Nothing to look back upon. No light on the path ahead. The very story of his existence might become little more than scatter shot.
Jerome never came back after that day. He had shown up searching for his tribe. An old gate opened onto a playground he no longer recognized. He found himself standing on the outside. Then he fled. He left behind a tenacious guardian sprite that keeps tabs, asking me to note the endless plummet between simple words like “yours”and “ours.” His sprite nudges me with a few words:
“Save a spot on that bench. Just in case. Even if I don’t come back, hold that space for the one who comes next.”