Josh races up the bleachers at Eric’s hockey game to the large open area at the top with nothing but concrete floors and white walls. It’s clearly just an unfinished space, but to a five-year-old boy, it looks like the best place on earth to chase a rubber orange ball around with a plastic hockey stick.
Josh moves from side to side and whacks the ball into the wall, trying to anticipate which direction it will come back. He races from one end to the other as friends and family of the local men’s league cheer on their loved ones and ooo and ah at near misses and acrobatic saves. I turn to watch the game for a moment, and when I look back, I see a small boy who can’t be more than eighteen months old running toward Josh’s ball, gesturing and grunting like the urgent toddler Josh was not so long ago. He is not choosing to go get the ball. He must get it. Nothing else in his world exists except that rolling orange object that seems to suddenly change direction every time he gets close enough to grab it.
“Show him your ball,” I suggest as the toddler’s desperate mother tries to distract him.
“He has his own ball,” his mother admits, and she scoops him up, promising him a tennis ball to play with. The toddler screams and refuses to break his gaze on the orange ball as Josh plays on. I turn back to the game.
A few minutes later, I sense the all-too-familiar warmth at my hip. “I don’t have anyone to play with. I’m bored.” Josh complains as only a kid with a stick, a ball, and a big open space with nothing but possibility can.
“You could hit the ball against the wall as hard as you can, and when it comes back to you, you can try to hit it again before it bounces more than once.” Josh tilts his head for a moment, seeming to consider the idea. But he doesn’t move.
“Or you could see how fast you can dribble it on your stick from one end to the other. I’ll time you.” A half-smile crosses Josh’s face.
“OK. Why don’t you start at this end, and we’ll see how fast you are.” Josh doesn’t move. I hear the familiar clomp-clomp of shoes on metal steps, and I suddenly realize he’s looking behind me. Three boys head toward us with sticks in hand.
“Hey, hey!” I whisper to him. Looks like you got lucky today.” Josh jumps up and starts hitting the ball with renewed energy. A boy in a white shirt reaches the top first and stops to watch Josh. As his buddies catch up, he turns to them and whispers, “Come on, let’s go over there,” as he points to the far corner of open space. I flinch and try to become invisible. His friends follow him, and as they walk away, Josh gallops along behind.
“Want to play hockey with me?” he asks eagerly.
The boys are clearly a few years older than Josh. They are carrying large wooden sticks with taped blades, and they have the same orange ball. All three stop and turn to face him.
“You probably don’t know how to play hockey yet,” the one in the white shirt replies.
“Yes I do.” Josh replies earnestly. “I play on a real ice hockey team, and I’m good.”
I stand perfectly still and try as hard as I can to look like I’m watching the game while I strain to hear the boys.
The kid in the blue striped shirt who’s holding the ball says, “No you don’t.”
“Yes I do.” Josh reiterates enthusiastically. “I just had a game this morning, and I got an assist.”
“What’s the name of your team,” the kid in white asks.
“The Tri-Valley Blue Devils,” Josh quickly answers.
“Do you really play ice hockey?” the kid in blue asks.
“Yeah, I really do!” Josh answers as he hops up and down.
I resist the urge to substantiate his claim. While I could certainly validate his story, I know that nothing makes a kid look younger or weaker than his mom standing up for him. So I stay put and bite my nails instead, hoping sport will win out over superiority.
The long-haired kid in the red shirt looks Josh over. Then he grabs the ball from his friend and hits it toward the side where Josh had been playing.
Josh bounds back to the makeshift rink and starts showing off his moves. The three boys follow, chasing Josh’s ball and their own around the concrete and off the walls. Josh enters the scrum, gleefully jumping, falling, and chasing after the balls with the big kids. The boy in the red shirt outmaneuvers his buddies and heads toward a jury-rigged goal between a garbage can and the wall that Josh has backed himself into. He takes a shot, and Josh jumps over to block it.
“He’s better than you guys,” the red-shirted kid says as he tries another shot. I breathe a small sigh of relief.
A few minutes later, I hear chirping. I can’t make out the words, but I can see the kid in the white shirt jawing and gesturing at Josh, who looks up at him wide-eyed. At first, it seems Josh is listening and absorbing some sort of lesson about technique. But as the chirping continues, I see Josh’s face become more strained. The other two boys look on.
This may be the first time Josh has had to negotiate his way through playground politics, but I know it won’t be the last. And I know I can’t step in to help. I also know he doesn’t have a chance. One small kid against three big kids never ends well for the small kid (unless God is on his side and he’s carrying a wicked homemade slingshot).
I see the kid in the white shirt grab Josh’s stick and point to the blade. When he gives it back, Josh pushes through the crowd and comes running to me. His eyes squint, and his jaw is clenched.
“They don’t want to play with me because I’m too LITTLE,” he laments as his voice cracks. I kneel down, but I stop short of giving him a hug.
“They are older than you.” I admit.
“They’re eight, and they said they might hurt me with their big sticks if they play with me.” I consider their concern. These do not look like cautious kids, and I instantly smell an excuse.
“Sometimes that’s just how it goes,” I concede. “But you were here first. They don’t have to play with you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep playing here on your own. So if I were you, I’d go back over there like nothing is wrong, and I’d start playing like I was having the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Josh sniffles and then nods. I pat his head as he turns around. His ball hits the floor, and his stick is on it instantly, guiding it from side to side. He fakes right and shoots hard left into the wall. I hear the smack of the ball against the drywall, and I admire how tough and resilient he already is.
The other boys can’t help themselves. When Josh’s ball bounces their way, they hit it. When Josh runs by with the ball on his stick, they try to hit it away. And when Josh jumps back into the imaginary goal, they take shots. Sometimes, I guess diversion does trump dominance, for boys anyway.
I hear the squeaks and thumps of four physically active boys as I try to follow the end of the game. Eric’s team is up 1–0 in the third period. With only a couple minutes left to play, the other team ties it up. I hear the roar of the crowd before I realize the puck is in the back of the net. I quickly scan the ice to make sure Eric was on the bench when the goal was scored. He hates it when the other team scores on his watch. As the crowd settles down, I see the three older boys bound past me.
“Let’s go to the pro shop,” the white-clad ring leader is shouting as they hop down the steps. I turn around to see Josh hitting his ball against the wall and then furiously diving for it before it bounces twice. He’s completely focused and completely content. He moves like only a little boy can, haphazard yet agile. He tests his physical limits, tries to manipulate himself in space in impossible ways, and falls down as often as he possibly can. He stretches and contorts and is utterly absorbed.
As the game is about to end, I once again see the toddler racing toward Josh’s ball with his mother chasing behind him. Josh notices the little boy and instead of continuing to hit the ball, he leaves it where it is. The toddler squeals with glee as he gets closer, and when he finally gets to it, he bends both knees and pounces on it.
“Throw it to me, and I’ll hit it back to you,” Josh says as he backs up a couple of feet. The boy looks up at Josh and then at his mom.
“Throw the ball,” his mother urges as she makes a throwing gesture with her right arm.
The boy slowly lifts the ball with his right hand and draws it back. Then he jerks his arm forward, but the ball stays firmly in his grip.
“Try again,” his mom encourages. Josh waits for the pass. The little boy looks at Josh’s stick. Then he turns around and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, cradling the ball in both hands as he waddles quickly away.
“You were exactly like that when you were his age,” I tell Josh as we watch the little boy’s mom chase him. And we both laugh.