Last weekend, I read through some old school papers I’d written in elementary school. I came across a booklet of sorts that held a compilation of memories written by each kid in the sixth grade of Pond Elementary school. The originals had been photocopied and assembled together, bound by a red folder with the Pond Panther, our school mascot on the front. Amused, I skimmed through them, smiling at the things that each kid cited as his and her favorite memories of the school. One in particular caught my eye. Although I remembered the boy who’d written it, I couldn’t actually remember him ever saying much. He’d moved to the area and joined my class in the last year of grade school, just before we’d all be splitting into different schools in our county for what was then referred to as Junior High.
If my memory serves me right, that very year he’d lost his mother, having also lost his father not long before. This is nearly all I remember of Oscar. The details of his life seemed tragic for any eleven-year-old kid to endure. Maybe that is why I don’t remember him saying much. In his written memory of Pond Elementary School, he recounts how all his classmates just stared and stared at him when he stood in front of us giving a report. I imagined a room of eyeballs, opened wide, baring down on him.
“They never stopped looking at me. They looked and looked.” He wrote.
Whatever the case, those blank stares made an impression on him–enough so that he remembered it some time later. If I knew then what I’ve reluctantly learned as an adult, it’s that he needed all the love in the world with him in that moment. And his classmates just did not deliver. I was relieved that despite what he recalled as his most embarrassing moment, Oscar concluded with, “I wish I didn’t have to leave all the fun at Pond Elementary School.”
As I was thinking about risk-taking, especially after a season of loss, I thought about Oscar. He was just a kid, at the mercy of adults who dictated to him where he lived right down to the very fact that he had to give that report as part of an assignment. But his story didn’t end there. He went on to share his funniest moment of the year and his plans for his future. He brushed up against an awkward moment but kept plugging away.
When we become adults, we can hedge ourselves in a little more–isolate, put up barriers, avoid taking chances if we don’t have to. Sometimes I think it’s safer to stay in sorrowful places, to nestle up against my fears and worries and hold on to pain because it’s familiar. Branching out and letting go is scary in its own right. It means owning my choices here and now and knowing that, no matter what happens, there’s no one else to point the finger at. The past is the past, and, well . . . here I go.
Sadness, fear, worry, or that strange assuredness we have in thinking we’re pretty sure how things will turn out if we go for it (whatever it might be) can feel safer than actually trying. Daring to see if there’s another possibility is scarier than just remaining there, accessing our pain or worry (fill in the blank) almost like a drug. At least there things are predictable if not downright miserable. But we stay because it’s what we know.
Risk is a necessary and often inevitable part of life–whether it’s sitting with a new group of kids in the lunch room or taking a job that feels like it might be ever-so-slightly out of our depth. The only way we discover the resources we have is to actually draw on them. And the only way to discover unrealized potential is to reach for it.