Recess! That most important time in every school day; fifteen hallowed minutes arriving mid-morning, and another half-hour or so after lunch, depending on how quickly you could scarf down your food and run out to the playground. How was it possible that we could pack so much living into such a short period of time?! It’s a mystery to me now, looking back upon it from an adult’s perspective, but it was magic when we were children, and somehow time stood still during recess—or it elongated remarkably—allowing us to do amazing feats between the bell’s resounding calls; the first, ringing out a declaration of freedom, as we all fled wildly, half-crazed from our classrooms, and the second, sounding out mournfully, calling us regrettably back to our desks once again.
But, oh! How much we could accomplish between the freedom of the bells. Yes! We painted our masterpieces each day upon the fresh canvas that was our playground. Each moment painted in broad brushstrokes; joy and freedom lived out in our many unique ways, sometimes harmoniously together, and sometimes infringing upon one another. In the classroom we learned how to read, and how to count; but on the playground we learned how to live.
I found joy and freedom in running; and I could run fast. To run is a thrill, from the first jolt of adrenaline when one kicks it into gear and takes off, to the feeling of the wind hitting one’s face, the sound and bounce of your feet as they hit the ground, repeatedly, carrying you quickly across the earth, as one’s surroundings turn to a blurr, and one’s vision focuses acutely, every sight and sound funneling around, then coiling into an intense cone of perception just before you; and you run constantly forward, and into that cone, pushing, pounding, with your lungs exploding, filling with oxygen, until you feel like you might explode for joy, and you can’t help but smile as the world rushes past you, and you leave the world behind. This is running, and I loved to run.
None of my friends at Sequoia Elementary could run as fast as I could run. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the entire school could run faster; with the exception of Wendi. I was fast but, she was faster. I believe it was in second grade, more or less, when we first raced. It was an impromptu competition; and if I remember correctly, she challenged me. The challenge came one day, through her committee; two girls in my class trash talking about how their friend, Wendi, could beat me in a race. I had seen her run, and I knew she was quick, but I was pretty sure I could win, so I accepted the challenge. The next day, during morning recess we met near the northeast corner of the school, just east of Mrs. Dunkleberger’s classroom, in the dodge-ball circle. We’d run to the southeast, in a straight-line, across the asphalt playground, past the portables, and into the weeds, finishing at the old railroad ties which encircled a small play-set just east of the kindergarten classroom; it was a distance of about fifty yards or so.
There was little fanfare about this foot-race, all around us other kids were playing. Girls hung upside-down from the monkey bars, oblivious to our intentions. Kids played ball, chased one another, and made the most of their recess time in a variety of different ways; and only the two trash-talkers, Wendi and I stood preparing for our event. Wendi was an elegant runner, she was smooth and flowed gracefully when she ran. I didn’t underestimate her abilities, but still I was confident in my own. It was a simple start to the race, one of the girls yelled ‘Go’ and we took off towards the old railroad ties. It was close for a while, we ran side-by side, but by about half-way she began to pull away from me. I was surprised to see her gain a step, then two and then three, and then finally, all I could really see was her long hair trailing behind her, as she left me in the dust.
When I reached the railroad ties she had already been there for a brief time, and she turned smiling at me as I arrived. But it wasn’t the smile of victory or of gloating; it was the smile of joy and freedom. I could see in her face right then that she also knew and understood the powerful joy of running. I’m sure she was also happy to beat me, but it appeared to me that she was even happier just to have ran, and to have competed with me.
A few moments later her two friends arrived, taunting me for having lost. But I didn’t really care about that; I was far too captivated by this amazing runner, her speed and the manner in which she ran. I reflected then, as I still do today, upon her running and it made me smile. It was almost as if she had been gliding or floating across the ground as she ran. Even though I has lost, I really enjoyed racing against her. And even though she had beaten me this time, I was sure that I could beat her the next. So I challenged her to a rematch; which she happily accepted, with her broad grin, perhaps knowing that she could beat me the next time too, but possibly just smiling at another opportunity to run free again.