I don’t know when it started, but I remember precisely how it started: with the shortest barely audible syllable in the world when uttered by a 7-year-old boy who is trying to get the jump on his oblivious opponent
And with that one word, he was sprinting down the hall to the library while my brain was still processing what was happening. But bless his sweet, optimistic, clueless heart that he thought I was a competitor he needed to use all his second-grade cunning to get the jump on, big, slow, crippled, and long in the tooth as I am.
It’s the long legs; they’re deceiving.
This was not going to stand, because first of all, I didn’t go to four years of teachers college and teach for another seven to allow children to run in school hallways. Second of all, I don’t want to get a reputation as “That volunteer that contributes to the quaint Andy Griffith-esque deliquency of our minors. What’s next? Handing out gum to kindergartners?” Third of all, he’s a big cheating cheater, and it’s not a race if both people involved don’t know it’s a race.
So I did what any other middle-aged adult would do in this situation. I stage-whispered down the hall to him that we could not be running in the halls, because we’d both get in trouble; we could only RACE-WALK, which meant one foot had to be firmly on the ground at all times.
This alternative proved amenable to all parties, and the facts that my legs were twice as long as his, five times as strong, and while I’m a terrible runner, I walk faster than most adults even when I’m not trying never crossed my mind.
So ever since, he doesn’t even do me the courtesy of saying “Race!” He just takes off as soon as his classroom door shuts and I’m expected to know the drill and catch up. Frequently, his competitive exuberance gets the best of him, and he moves from speedwalking to running, at which point I say, “CHEATER!” and he brings it back to Earth.
I do make an exception for the stretch of outdoor sidewalk between the school building and the library building, which borders the playground, and if you’re outside on the edge of the playground, not running doesn’t seem even a little bit reasonable.
Victory is achieved by a hand on the heavy metal door to the library. It probably goes without saying that I never win, because what it would take to move this carcass at winning speed (or any speed, really) without Godzilla rolling up on me is not energy I care to invest at 8:45 in the morning, especially considering the loss of dignity that would undoubtedly ensue. I don’t know if the child thinks I’m letting him win; if he ever did, I’m pretty sure he knows better by now. But he likes to win. And the entire performance builds the bond between us. Plus, the disco victory dance he does when he wins is worth it every time.
But today, despite him cheating in the middle section of the hall with an illegal jog, things were different, because as we rounded the corner to head out the school doors, he dropped his Precious: a brown plastic ring shaped like a football. I heard it skitter across the floor as I caught up with him, and if I’d been a nicer, kinder person, I would’ve stopped to help him retrieve it.
But old age and treachery will beat youth and skill every time, and I saw my chance. Clutching my book bags more tightly, I powered right past him, through the doors, down the sidewalk, put both hands on the library doors, and was turning around doing my victory boogie as he came running up behind me, too late.
“I won! I won!” I said, shaking my booty in some kind of bastardized cabbage patch, and he looked totally deflated. Or winded. One of the two. And then he got a gleam in his eye, yanked the library door open, and speedwalked right past my dancing self to our usual table in the corner, where he was already doing his John Travolta moves when I came around the bookshelf.
You have learned well, young padawan.