It was the best recess game of that year and all morning long the challenges were offered. “I’ll race you at recess!” The playground teacher was used to positioning herself at the far end of the asphalt yard, holding both hands outstretched in order to act as the midpoint judge. Eager runners lined up on the opposite side, jockeying for position in line so they could pick their opponent in the line across from them. One trip down, one trip back and your race was over—until you challenged the next kid and jumped back into line. It was an endless loop of racing and bragging, recess after recess.
And there was one boy who just could not be beat. He ran swiftly and effortlessly, low to the ground, with confident strides that brought him across the finish line first every time. Some kids challenged him every single recess, sure that just one more chance to race would bring them victory. Some kids changed places in line hurriedly because they didn’t want to face their certain loss. Every recess, every day, Dalton was the fastest boy in the first grade.
One day in class, the subject of running came up. I let them know that back in my own elementary days I liked to race as much as anyone. I even told them about the fastest boy in my class, Justin, and that we were sure his secret to speed was the cool stripes on his favorite pair of shoes. The kids were eager to know if I had ever beat Justin in a race–which I assured them I had not. And then one of them, with a twinkle in her eye, suggested that we all find out if I was a faster runner than Dalton.
I wore my tennis shoes to recess the day of the showdown. Even though I was a good 20+ years older than young Dalton, it did occur to me that perhaps this little kid might beat me. However, I was ready to give it my best try and maybe win the playground respect of the first grade. As we lined up at the start, the rest of the kids surrounded the asphalt, ready to cheer on their teacher and their hero. The playground supervisor planted her feet at the other end and reached out her arms to the side before giving the countdown.
And we were off! It took about everything I had, but I managed to stay ahead of Dalton the whole length of the playground. I let a triumphant smile creep across my face–those kids were going to be so proud of me for beating the fastest boy in their grade! I snuck one more look over my shoulder before slapping the supervisor’s hand and reversing direction for the trip back down to the finish line. Dalton’s look of fierce determination confirmed that I was indeed outrunning him. I turned around and made a dash to the finish…
What happened next is unclear. It could have been an untied shoelace. It could have been complete clumsiness. It could have been a rock in the way. But whatever it was, it resulted in utter disaster. I went down like a frantic falling cartoon character, hanging desperately in the air for a long moment, and then skidding to a stop across the asphalt. I lay there for a long moment, stunned. I heard the entire first grade gasp loudly in shock. And I heard the pounding footsteps of Dalton crossing the finish line. And then…
The crowd of children rushed to Dalton and picked him up, cheering his name and taking him on a victory lap. Only a few of the tender-hearted ones came over to where I was lying in a heap and poked me to see if I were still alive. The pain of losing the race was nothing compared to the pain I felt when I attempted to stand up, realizing that both hands and both knees were badly scraped up. There I was, an actual grown-up person who had just skinned her knees. The playground teacher was bent over double, laughing at me, but then managed to help me into the office where (after more laughter) the secretary bandaged me up with the “big bandaids”. I did not beat Dalton that day, nor on any day after that for that was officially the last day that I agreed to run any races with my kids.
Last week, Dalton surprised me with an amazing honor. He is a senior in high school now, and he selected me as the teacher who had most impacted him over all his years in school. We walked out onto the basketball court together and the high school principal read out loud the essay that Dalton had written. Yes, he did mention “The Race”—and he was extremely gracious in saying that perhaps I had “let him win”. Standing next to Dalton was the best honor I have had in my teaching career–and hearing his words of how our classroom was one of happiness and positive learning meant the world to me.
Oh…and it should come as no surprise that Dalton’s athletic career has shown him to be one of the best runners our school district has seen. You can ask any of his first grade classmates–we could see that coming! And I am proud to count myself as one of the racers that helped him along the way, back on that old, rocky playground. With so many rocks. I’m almost sure there was a big rock…
Thanks, Dalton. 😀