Last week, I volunteered at my daughter’s elementary school turkey trot. All of the 400-plus students in her school participated, from Kindergarten to fifth grade. The fourth and fifth grades were expected to run a full mile, which meant they had to make four long laps around the baseball fields behind their school. Third grade ran three laps, second and first grades ran two, and the kindergarteners only had to run one. The girls ran first, and then the boys.
I was stationed way out at the third corner of the makeshift track. My job was to motivate the students and to keep them from cheating by cutting across the baseball field backstop.
I was away from the main action, with the starting line not even within shouting distance. I wasn’t recording time or congratulating the kids as they passed the finish line. But even though I wasn’t in the thick of things, I was in the perfect position to observe. And as an observer, I noticed some interesting things.
First of all, 9- and 10-year-olds excel at making it absolutely clear when they do NOT want to do something. They thrive in situations that give them the power to do this passive-aggressively, and they (silently) rejoice when the planets align and they can passive-aggressively display their supreme disinterest while also managing to exert some level of control over the adults in their lives. And in an elementary school turkey trot, boy, do those planets align.
I called these kids the “walkers with attitude.” These were the kids who Were. Not. Running. It was enough that they condescended to stroll, slowly, and in groups. But run? Oh, no. Oh no, no, no.
Let me tell you, it is painful to stand in the corner of a field on a cold fall morning and watch a group of kids amble at a snail’s pace over a 1 mile course. Painful. After almost 20 minutes, when the slowest of the slow were still only on their second lap, I’d had enough. I started to run. I ran up to them as they approached me, and I made them run with me for about a 100 yard stretch. Then I would run up to the next group, and escort them. This strategy was actually more effective than you might expect, and I even got some smiles from kids as they approached me saying to their friends, “ok, we HAVE to run here.”
Still, there were a few who weren’t having it. And oh, the looks they gave me. I don’t envy our teachers.
Then there were the runners. These kids were impressive. Where the other kids started off sprinting, they paced themselves. They ran consistently and intelligently and showed a level of discipline that I, who have always loved to run, didn’t understand until I was in high school. The most memorable of these students was a 5th grade girl who could teach much older, and much more experienced, runners a few things. She was so good that, out of all 6 grades, she was the only girl who had ALL the boys in her class cheering for her.
Which brings us to the helpers. The girls. The girls who danced and cheered for the boys who were running. The girls who slowed down so their friend with asthma didn’t have to walk alone. The girls who turned around when they were finished to walk with their friend with Down Syndrome, who needed someone to hold her hand.
These were the girls who brought out my feminist ambivalence. The girls who made me WANT to shout “You don’t HAVE to do this! That’s why I am
here! Run your own race! You can be fast and powerful! RUN!” But who, instead, made me feel proud and hopeful in the knowledge that the helpers of the future, the people who will keep our world together, are growing up to be exactly what we need the most.
If the walkers and the runners and the helpers are the groups who stood out the most to me, there were two individual students who I will remember above all: the smeller of roses and the cheetah.
The smeller of roses was a kindergartener who came in dead last. (Just after my own daughter, the talker, who took advantage of the situation to hold her teacher’s hand and chat. But that’s another story.) This little girl started off walking, and walked the whole way. She was totally unmoved by peer pressure. Unlike the older kids, she wasn’t walking to prove anything. She was walking because it was a nice afternoon and there were things to look at. Things like the pale pink bead she found and showed me after the race. While the other kids were taking advantage of some post-race playground time, this little girl was proudly telling me about the beautiful treasure she had found during her walk around the field.
And then there was my cheetah. My fourth-grade friend who came up to my post walking, with “attitude” written all over his face. But as he came closer, I noticed that despite the stony expression on his face, he was crying.
I asked him if I could run with him, but his response was a hard NO. No, he would not run. He hated the turkey trot. He always came in last. I tried telling him that of course he would come in last if he didn’t at least try to run. He wasn’t having it. The tears continued to stream down his face.
His anger and frustration and tears continued to his very last lap, when finally another mother and I walked with him, to encourage him to run at least the last 100 yards of the race. We tried to get him talking, to get him to focus on something positive rather than the negative feelings he was experiencing at that moment. After a few minutes of denying interest in any topic whatsoever, he finally broke down. “I like The Wild Kratts. And I like cheetahs. When I run, I want to feel like a cheetah. But I don’t. I don’t feel like a cheetah. I’m too slow. So I don’t run. I can’t run.”
So the other mom and I each took one of his hands, and instead of running like cheetahs, we ran like turkeys. And all three of us crossed the finish line running.