A Principal’s Notes from the Playground
When Karina and Grace got into it yesterday morning, they did not know that I, the school principal, stood near enough to hear every word. It started with a typical litany of grievances, infractions, betrayals and spite delivered with a hiss. The first barrage came from Karina. Then, with a stammer, from Grace. Then back to the top.
Their spat ramped up with speed and force, causing Karina’s long black braids to swing in vertical arcs while Grace’s soft brown cheeks turned to mottled red. It seemed I had discovered the “throw-down corner” where the real action happened!
Just then, I saw Karina’s eyes widen as she told Grace she would no longer be her best friend. The likely “I-hate-you’s” and maybe something worse appeared imminent, so I emerged from the my little doorway perch and “loomed” as one of the fourth graders called it—wherein I tower over little ones and fix my gaze upon them.
“How are things going, girls?”
My first question got no response, but both girls froze, looked up at me and then at each other. I didn’t have a plan past the shock-and-awe greeting, so I had to think fast. I tried a second question: “Friends today, gone tomorrow?”
“What do you mean?” I heard one or the other say. I stepped closer.
I found myself questioning what I wanted to accomplish by butting in. But, my gut said “continue” even as my brain failed to guide me. I knew these girls well—as if they were my own—and knew they had been friends forever. I thought of synchronicities that would create a moment with the three of us talking to one another.
Both girls remained speechless, so I filled in the blanks with a story.
“Do you see those two trees?” In fact, two old oaks grew side by side on the other side of the chain link. What luck! Come on, I said to myself. Spin it! And the words came: “They are the oldest living beings on this hill. Some say they are more than 500 years old. When no water comes, when the heat spikes, you name it, they stick together. And every year they inch closer. If you look at their roots, they have even started to grow together. And you know what else?”
I got an eye roll from Grace, but I kept talking: “I believe that trees can talk.”
“Oh come on!” Karina cut in.
“Not in words like you and me. They speak the way trees speak. They were saplings and then proud trees, standing even when other trees bent and fell. They bent with the wind and they grew closer.”
“So what did the trees say?” Now it was Grace being suspicious.
“You see that tree on the left? The bigger one? That one does most of the talking. So the big one said to the little one: “I am never going to leave you. We’ve been through too much.”
“Oh come on,” said Karina again. “These trees got nowhere else to go.”
“Well look around, little angel. Neither do you. Figure out how to make it work. Both of you could use a good friend…”
That wrapped things for the moment. Meanwhile, I noted that we stood upon a slab of solid tar, surrounded by a high fence, and filled with little humans who shadow-boxed with their own forms of “looming”. They toyed with the awesome power of choice and the irrevocable ways of consequence.
A good enough reason to choose “in”, every single day.
Gregory John is the principal of a grade school in San Francisco. He’s also the author of Notes from the Playground, a collection of essays about childhood that is available on Amazon.com.