Life and Death on a Playground

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Danny Schwartz sat in front of me for two years in fourth and fifth grade. Schwartz, Sherwood, our names were in order on the seating chart. Danny Schwartz, in the small little world, and yet all encompassing world of my elementary school class was easily the least popular kid. For one thing, he was way smarter than everyone else. While the rest of us were reading at a pretty basic level and mostly watching a lot of TV, Danny was reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. Mostly though, Danny was very nervous. And when he got nervous he scratched the back of his neck and rocked back and forth. He didn’t scratch his neck in a subtle, no on would even notice sort of way, he scratched it like he was going to dig the skin right off. He rocked forward and back like he was in a rocking chair. Danny was nervous a lot of the time. Kids being kids, most everyone responded to that by making fun of Danny. Pretty much all the time.

In a way that I desperately tried to hide from everyone one in the class, I had become Danny’s friend. Because we sat next to each other for two years in a row, we often worked on projects together. I got better grades when I worked with Danny. I wasn’t reading The Lord of the Rings, but my Dad was a big fan and was reading them to my brother and me at night which was sort of the same thing. And Danny, in a smart way that I barely understood, was interesting and even kind of funny. I didn’t advertise it, but sitting next to Danny every day wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

I don’t remember what I’d been doing that day at recess, probably playing 4 square. That’s what I did most every day at recess. What I do remember is walking around the corner and seeing Danny. Actually, seeing Danny and almost all the boys in my class. As usual, everybody was taunting him. It varied from day to day in terms of topic: his clothes, his glasses, his scratching his neck, his being a ‘brainiac’, but what was relentlessly un-varied was that it was something. Today’s topic was Danny’s lack of friends.

            “You don’t have any friend’s, Danny! No one likes you.”

Danny responded as he did every day. Cowering, rocking and feverishly scratching his neck. Somehow trying to survive the daily hell that was 5th grade for him.

And then he saw me come around the corner.

Uncharacteristically, Danny stopped rocking, stopped scratching and straightened up. Confidently he said, “Yes I do! Steve is my friend.” He pointed at me. Nobody had seen me walk up, I wasn’t on the bottom of the pile like Danny, but I was hardly the Big Man on Campus either. Now, everyone turned to me.

It literally took me about two seconds to figure out what was going on and even less time for me to decide what I was going to do. Actually, to say I decided implies that I weighed various options. I don’t remember doing that. I remember responding reflexively, as if the choice to make was so obvious that it didn’t even require thought.

With everyone turned to me and Danny looking at me with a semi-confident, semi-pleading smile, I knew exactly what to say.

            “No you don’t, Danny. You don’t have any friends. I’m not your friend.”

The crowd of boys erupted with joy. “Told you!” “Hah! Not even Sherwood likes you.” All eyes returned to Danny.

I felt horrible for Danny. I watched hope drain from his face and despair settle in. Mostly though, I felt relief. The eyes, THE EYE was off of me. It had worked. I’d been spared.

In the two seconds it took to appraise the situation, I knew what claiming Danny as a friend would do for him. It would save his life. In that moment, and for as long as he was in that school. He would no longer be alone. Alone to face ridicule. Adrift in the shark infested ocean of Schuykill Elementary School. He’d have a friend. Some small scrap of community.

What I knew even more powerfully, however, was what it would mean for me. Giving Danny that gift, would cost me. He’d no longer be alone because I would join him. It was him or me. No debate, it wasn’t even close.

I apologized to Danny later. He said it was OK. That he understood. More than anyone, he probably did. It didn’t matter. I knew who I was. I knew what I had done. I’d always felt kind of proud that I’d not joined the harshest taunting of Danny. Sure, when he wasn’t around, I might scratch my neck and rock to get a laugh, to show I belonged. But I didn’t do it to his face like everyone else. I was different. I was better.

I wasn’t better at all. If anything, I might have been worse. Everyone else was being cruel to someone they didn’t really know. Someone they didn’t really even see to be a person, another kid. I knew Danny. Not in a ‘let’s have a sleepover’ kind of a way, but in as real a way as Danny had, I was his friend. I knew that. It even made me feel kind of good about myself. Kind of morally superior.

Until it looked like it would cost me something.

 At the center of my universe, is me, first, last and always. I have moments where it doesn’t appear so. Moments where I am kind to others, where I give to charities, where I offer a lending hand. Even in these moments, though, ME is still front and center. I’m brilliant at quickly and subtly calculating the math. What is the advantage TO ME of this act of kindness? Will I be thought well of? Will this person love me back? Will the benefit of that outweigh the cost? If so, I’m in. Look at me. Great guy. If not, well, maybe some other time.

Years and years ago, the London Times hosted an essay contest, “What’s wrong with the world?” This contest was hosted during a time often called The Enlightenment or Modernity. A time where humanity, at least humanity in ‘civilized’ places like Europe and the United States was brimming with confidence that we had everything we needed to right all that was wrong in the world. The only question was to figure out which problem to conquer first. Hence the contest.

All kind of literary, philosophical, political and religious heavyweights were invited to write essays for the paper weighing in on their thoughts as to what humanity’s most significant, but surely soon to be eradicated, problem was. One of those was the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. He wrote a strikingly short essay in response. Two words, in fact.

What’s wrong with the world? “I am.”

No one who knew or read Chesterton would have taken this response as evidence of poor self-esteem. That was not the issue. What Chesterton meant was this.

Take my behavior on the Schuykill School playground. Play it out through my lifetime of self-serving, self-protecting choices. Multiply this by the few billion people alive at this moment. Multiply that again by all the people that have ever lived. Is it any surprised the world seems like a pretty f***ed up place?

The endless optimism of Modernity turned out to be a lie. It didn’t bring the end of all that ails humanity. It ended up in the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz. Something is terribly wrong. With me. With us.