When I was in second grade, they consolidated the bus stops in my neighborhood. Instead of having three separate stops, they decided that all of the kids should coalesce at the last stop. This increase in efficiency allowed the bus driver to conserve gas and time. It had the unforeseen bonus that all of the children in the neighborhood were together, allowing greater levels of socialization.
The number of children at my bus stop more than doubled, and I loved it. No parents supervised this bus stop, and we reveled in our unrestrained exploits. As the sun’s rays peeked through the trees which tenderly held our little neighborhood in their leafy embrace, we would assemble. We would recklessly sling our backpacks onto the sidewalk, the streaks of dawn’s radiance saturating the bags with color. Leaving our backpacks behind served two purposes: we were not weighed down by them, and more importantly, it alerted the bus driver to stop even if we were out of sight.
Quite frequently we would run back and forth across the road, cackling with delight as we willfully disobeyed every parent’s decree, “Don’t play in the road.” Caught up in our own daredevil-induced euphoria, we would hold races with a finish line on the other side of the pavement. Across the street was a small plateau with about a dozen large trees scattered around. Whooping and hollering, we would sprint to a pre-designated tree, touch it, and sprint back across the road to the sidewalk.
One hazy Monday morning, we were prepping for our first race of the week. We lined up, sneakers queued up in an irregular row as we bent forward and touched the coarse concrete of the sidewalk. A doe and her fawn watched us from the woods, eyes wide and unblinking. Dust motes danced in a shaft of light. I focused my gaze on the tree I needed to reach.
Fourteen children slammed into gear, our sneakers squeaking as we bolted across the dew-kissed grass and into the road. I found second place, my thin arms pumping like pistons as I fought valiantly to achieve the advantage on the asphalt. Third snuck up on me as we climbed the embankment and gained the plateau.
The tree was mere inches from my fingertips. I threw my hand out in front of me, almost able to feel the knobby surface, the mint-hued moss coming into focus. As my right foot left the ground, I kicked up small blades of grass and specks of dirt wrested from the earth beneath my shoe. My left foot lost traction, the sole support pulled out from under me unexpectedly. Mid-stride, my mouth formed a perfect O of surprise, astonishment taking over my body. I fell backward with an astounding thud. Propelled forward by my earnest flight, I slid supine across the dew-stained plateau as the race continued behind me. Barely noting that I had not collided with the tree on my horizontal journey through the woods, I lay still for a moment as I processed the event.
I regained my feet and attempted to take a breath. And failed. I made my way shakily across the road, the bus rounding the bend and slowing down to make its stop. I began to cry because I couldn’t draw in enough oxygen to keep myself functioning at peak performance. The bus driver looked askance at this small, dirty child wheezing and sobbing on the steps of the bus. Grass and dew adorned the back of my jacket, an ill-received scarlet letter of failure and misbehavior. As I continued to gasp for air while snot and tears poured down my face, the bus driver told me to return home.
I trudged home forlorn and ashamed. Almost immediately after I met my mother in the living room, I was able to breathe more regularly. I ended up missing school that day, but I never raced across the street again.