Monday, April 25, 2011

Playing With Matches

When we were 6-years-old, Jeff Short and I took a book of matches into a place we called "the woods," an undeveloped lot a few houses down from his own on Winston Street, lit leaves and pine cones on fire, then stomped them out, hidden from the rest of the world by a stand of pines hung with Spanish Moss. We did it over and over, going through all the matches. We did it again the next day and the next day too, until one day our fire spread beyond where we'd set it, running wildly across the dried pine needles that covered the ground.

We stomped furiously. I knew, and Jeff must have known too, that this was a moment all our own. No adult could save us. It was either stomp out this fire right now or it would race through the undergrowth and up the trees and through the neighborhood. We knew this and we stomped furiously, not speaking, knowing the only thing we could do was stomp.

We stood there afterwards, still not speaking, watching the ground where the fire had been, where it might still be, kicking at it with our toes, suddenly older, stomping some more, making sure, sure, sure it was out. Even when we got on our bikes to ride to our individual homes, I don't remember speaking, at least not about the catastrophe we'd nearly caused and luckily averted. In fact, I don't recall ever speaking about it, not with Jeff, or anyone, until now.

I hate that moment. Hate it. By the time this happened, Smokey Bear had spoken to us through the TV dozens, if not hundreds of times. Our parents had taught us the mantra never play with matches and we knew it like we knew to not let strangers touch us or to look both ways before crossing the street. I hate how much I grew up that day, painfully, a scar I still feel as a stinging, panicky guilt every time it comes up for me, and that's more often than I care to admit. It was a terrible thing for a 6-year-old boy to experience, that glimpse into the reality of being in the world with no one to save him.

I suppose I should be sharing this story with a moral like: from that day forward I never again played with matches. But it wouldn't be true. My father, brother and I still took turns passing our fingers through the flame of the candles on the dinner table. It wasn't too many years later that gangs of us would pool our pocket money in order to afford a quantity of firecrackers and bottle rockets to set off in the street in front of our house. (Finally, the neighbors complained, but not about the noise or the matches, but rather about all the litter we left blowing about on the asphalt, which mom made us sweep up, and which was the real reason we never did it again.) We still stuck sticks into the barbecue coals until they ignited, then drew pictures with them in the air at night.

What I did learn that day, although I wasn't fully aware of it at the time, was that if I was going to try something risky, it shouldn't be while hiding behind pines and Spanish Moss. If I was going to dance with danger, I should first make sure to be surrounded with other people, especially those I know and trust, as many as possible. We'd hidden our experiments because we wanted to know more about fire, but felt it was forbidden knowledge and almost burned the neighborhood because of it. It wasn't the fire, it was the hiding that made the risk unbearable.

It's a tricky line to walk as responsible adults, wanting to support risk-taking without letting kids kill themselves. We all forbid certain things that our children want to do, but we also need to understand it is a human imperative that forbidden knowledge must be pursued, and more often than not it will be done under cover of pine trees and Spanish Moss, making the risk infinitely greater. Children will take risks, so isn't it better that it happen at the dinner table, in front of the house, or around the grill where we can help them evaluate the risk, then help them stomp out the fire when and if it gets out of hand?

I'm the parent of a young teenager now and while the specific risks are different, the dynamics are the same. I remember what it's like. There are so many dangers, ones that could alter her life at least as much as burning down a neighborhood. Oh, how I want to forbid her knowledge of the cruelty of others, of drinking, of drugs, of sex, of leaving her toys and dolls behind and growing up too fast. Despite my feelings, I know that she will take risks. And I don't want her to hide. I'm not naive enough to believe that she won't keep things from me, her parent, so my greatest counsel to her is to stick with her friends, know who they are, listen to their warnings, and count on them to help her should the fire start spreading wildly across the ground. I give her other counsel as well, but this, I feel, is perhaps the most important.

We need the other people to help us stamp out the fires and to lift us up when we inevitably fall. They can't do that when we hide our risk-taking because it has been strictly forbidden.

A couple weeks ago, our daughter's middle school held one of it's twice yearly "open mics" in which the students perform for one another, their teachers, and parents. Josephine is by now a seasoned veteran of the stage, both as an actress and musical performer. There was a time when I would sit in the audience with my heart in my throat, praying that she didn't forget her line or miss her cue or do something else to embarrass herself, but she's now had enough success under her belt that she can laugh off her flubs. It's really not so risky for her any more.

This isn't true, however, for most of the performers. When they take to the stage it is at great personal risk to their middle school psyche, rife with the potential for grave peril. It takes a lot of courage to get up there and perform.

A younger boy stepped up to the microphone, the recorded beat of hip hop bravado behind him. He swaggered like he's seen the guys do on YouTube, roaring through the first verse, getting the audience clapping through the chorus. Then he lost it. The lyrics fled, leaving him there on the stage, a little boy, humiliated in front of all his friends, his teachers, and the parents of his friends. He sort of staggered around the stage as if lost for a bit before starting to clap, hopefully it seemed, while faintly chanting the main line of the chorus over and over. We all clapped and chanted with him: his friends, his teachers, and parents. Cheers erupted spontaneously from the back rows, his friends stomped on the bleachers as if stomping out a fire that could have very easily burned down his entire emotional neighborhood. He was on that stage alone, but we were with him, stomping.

Finally, the recorded beat, which had never stopped, rolled around to a part he recognized and the words miraculously came back to him. We went wild, especially his classmates, still stomping on that fire to make sure it was really out, celebrating our survival and the risk he took with us.

It is a moment he will hate forever, but hopefully he'll always also remember it with a little less vehemence when he recalls how his friends helped him stamp out that fire.

We tell our children to not play with matches because the risk is too great, yet it is exactly that risk that attracts them. There are all kinds of risks, most of which don't threaten our lives or those of others, but some do. It's impossible to know in advance to what risks children will be attracted, but we do know that forbidden knowledge bears with it the imperative that it must be pursued. It's why we stupidly play with matches or knives or guns if we can get them into our hands. And it's why, as we get older, the draw of sex and drugs is such a strong one. Taking risks sometimes rewards us, but just has often we get burned, and that's when it's important to have not taken that risk alone.

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Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom!

Recently, myself and others have been working in local pre-schools encouraging the staff to consider the benefits of fire activities. The only way to know and understand fire is to experience it directly. Our local ranger service found that when they visited schools and showed children how to make and light fires, the number of wilful fire raising activities on their sites around the city declined.

As for my sister...well aged 3 she was trying to light fires behind the sofa in the living room using freshly cut grass, lumps of coal and matches!

Your Therapy Source Inc said...

There is so much to this post beyond playing with matches. What a great, thoughtful piece on growing and risk taking. Belongs in the Wall Street Journal or NY Times in addition to your blog. Thanks for the insight.

Teacher Tom said...

@YTSI . . . Wow! Thank you so much! That really makes my day.

Teacher Tom said...

@Juliet . . . I tried to get a fire pit installed last year. In fact, I had it approved by everyone who needed to approve it and had the budget, but fire scares people and it became a battle I didn't want to fight last year.

Maybe I should go the route of having rangers come demonstrate. It might have everyone relax a little.