Push Your Shoes Down the Stairs

November 10, 2015

Abstract cave artwork

I was sitting in a large open stairwell, with gaps beneath each stair that led to the lobby area below. I work as a leader at a children’s summer camp, and right now we’re in what we call “small group time”. I’m sitting in this stairwell with several other kids (think 8 to 11 years old) discussing what we learned today.

Clearly bored with the discussion, one kid decides to push objects through the opening in the stairs, sending them plummeting into the lobby below.

The first object he chooses is his own shoe.

The discussion ended abruptly when a loud clunk echoed from the lobby below. It was the shoe. The kids immediately looked at me to gauge my reaction to the event. At that point, I had two choices. My first option was to shut down the behavior and mark it as something unacceptable. I would tell him to “stop being a distraction” and to “pay attention”.

But kids, especially at this age, hear that far too much.

My other option was to engage. Without saying a word, I took off my own shoe and calmly nudged it over the edge of the stairs. A bunch of loud noises followed suit as it fell to the floor below.

The children began to giggle, which quickly accelerated into a harmonious laughter. It was heartwarming to hear. Following the example of their leader, they began to nudge their own shoes down the stairs to hear the satisfying thuds as they made contact with the tile below.

And there we were, just a bunch of kids shoving shoes down stairs, yet having the most fun we’ve had all day. It was something so small that generated so much joy amongst the group. It was this collective rebelliousness that brought the group together in a strange new way. It was no longer a leader with a bunch of children; it was an “us”, if that makes any sense.

Instead of the leader urging the kids to behave like adults, the kids were drawing the leader into a childlike exploration. This experience was so much more meaningful than anything that could have been said in small group that day.

To me, the childlike (not childish) state of mind is fascinating, and something we can learn from. Give them a space, and they will explode with creativity and imagination. Give them a voice, and they will say profound things.

This space, this time, this place is so unique in their lives. I feel as though there’s a crucial piece of it we leave behind, maybe even forget about. They have this pure, unadulterated sense of playfulness that feels so extinguished in adults. It’s a spark of awe and sense of wonder that feels like a faded polaroid the more time passes.

There’s a piece of me that believes we should all take part in this childlike exploration, this state of awe, this little spark to us that we may have left behind so many years ago. Maybe we’ll knock a few things over, make some mistakes, but maybe, just maybe it’ll be worth it.

Another story.

It’s the last day of camp, after years of forming bonds and connections with these kids. And of course, with any good ending comes a healthy dose of sadness. What’s interesting is children at this age don’t know how to say goodbye. They have these raw emotions and no understanding of how to deal with or express them.

I’m standing in a gymnasium, and a little girl walks up to me. She hands me a stuffed animal she won at the state fair. It’s a turtle wearing sunglasses. On the foot of the turtle she wrote my name and a brief note.

It was her unique, quirky way of saying goodbye.

After giving it to me, she looked up with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, unsure of what to do or say. She stood there, waiting for me to take the next step, say the next thing, or somehow make sense of it for her.

All the games we’ve played, the shenanigans and innocent heists we’ve pulled, everything we’ve done together leads up to a moment like this. A moment you have to be prepared for, otherwise you will be blindsided.

Kids work in this way. They will share something intimate with you, they will open up and completely unfold at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. When it happens, it’s all too easy to gloss over it and miss out on something divine.

This was my chance to tell her something she would take with her. I realized that every word I spoke would linger for years to come, and have incredible weight and significance.

I told her how amazing I thought she was. I told her how much I had learned from her, how much I look up to her. I told her never to let anyone discourage her, to never forget how much she is capable of, and to never stop challenging, learning, exploring, and adventuring.

These moments are what we’re here for. Letting them slip away would be criminal.

We have the choice to wholly submerge ourselves in these moments, or walk right past them.

We have the choice to push our shoes down the stairs.

And if we do, I think we’ll find ourselves more alive than we’ve ever been before.