Recently, I drove past my old Catholic grade school. It is near my father’s house, in the neighborhood where I grew up. While sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change, I looked over and saw children on the playground at recess. The kids were running around in the same kind of uniforms that I used to wear, enjoying the same games that I had played, and rejoicing in the blessing of a warm day. Seemingly nothing had changed from those days 35 years ago when I had done exactly the same thing. But, of course, everything has changed. Or has it?
I, of course, remember well those days of grade school and playground time. Recess always came after lunch, which, in hindsight, now seems gastronomically somewhat risky. Children are more resilient, I suppose. I would finish my peanut butter sandwich, carrot sticks and chocolate chip cookie, which my mother had packed in my Dukes of Hazzard metal lunch box. All of us would then be ushered outside to play. I was very poor at sports, mostly because I needed glasses, so I was rarely asked to be part of any team. But I would run around and play tag or talk with my friend Mike or watch the cars go by on the city streets. I remember wondering what it would be like to be all grown up as I watched the cars drive by.
My playground memories were not always so pleasant. Kids picked on me fairly often, but since anti-bullying initiatives had not yet been discovered, I was left to fend for myself. Some kids taught me some off-color words and phrases which I promptly brought home and repeated to my mother. I remember her reaction being negative and swift.
The girls usually hung around in groups talking to each other while the boys remained mostly solitary. The older boys would usually make grunting noises and exhibit feats of strength to impress the girls. The girls would just giggle and pretend not to notice. Eventually, the bell would ring and we would all fall back into line and return to our classrooms to be educated.
Jesus tells us often in the Gospels that we must turn and become like little children. To have a childlike faith with trust in God’s loving providence in our lives is the sweetest of gifts. We often forget this in life, and then spend lots of time trying to remember it. But seeing those kids on the playground reminded me of how much things have changed for me in my life. And how very little has changed. We still play and have fun outside at recess.
Human dynamics remain the same between men and women. And petty cruelties still hurt. And it really doesn’t matter what age we happen to be on the playground of life, the dynamics and interactions are pretty much the same. As adults, we are in many ways just overgrown and semi-sophisticated children. And the joys and sorrows of the playground remain the same no matter what our age happens to be.
As I drove around the block and looked at my old school and the children at play, I glanced at the location on the playground where I used to hang out. And, on that warm day, I caught sight of a vaguely familiar young boy, standing by himself, with brown hair and brown eyes watching the other children play and just taking it all in. And for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of what was. Of what is. And what will be.
Fr. Girotti is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.