At New Market Elementary School in Sophia, NC, Field Day was much anticipated. Each grade level competed within itself in all kinds of physical activities: relays, jumping rope, obstacle courses made out of hay bales, etc. More important than the blue, red and white ribbons that were handed out to the victors (though these were all VERY important, too) all sorts of castes, hierarchies and social strata that would dictate our lives for the next year would be firmly decided that day in the schoolyard.
Each classroom in a particular grade-level, would supply 3 girls and 3 boys to compete in each competition (kind of like the Hunger Games but less nihilistic). If more than 4 kids wanted to compete in a certain event, the class would have to hold some sort of preliminary.
By the 2nd grade, my reputation as a Type A/teacher’s pet/future Valedictorian was already established. My athletic abilities–generally masked by a body frame that was politely referred to as “husky” in those days—had never really been questioned or even entertained by my peers.
For whatever reason, the pinnacle event on Field Day was the 50 yard dash. I don’t know what made me raise my hand that day when Ms. Pugh asked which boys wanted to represent the class in the race, but I did, and that put the number of volunteers at 5. This necessitated a “run-off”.
It was a rainy Spring day but nonetheless, Ms. Pugh sent the five us out to the field behind the school. All of our classmates lined up at the row of windows that looked down on the grass. I bent forward with my hand resting on my knee ready to push my chubby self forward with a little extra thrust. I vaguely remember looking over my right shoulder as the teacher opened up the window and shouted
On your mark! Get set! Go!
And we were off.
Racing toward the chain link fence that bordered one end of the school property, I’m certain that if I went back now the distance would seem so short, but then it seemed like a long, long way. Arms and legs pumping furiously, we remained fairly closely packed. As the fence came ever closer, one could inhale the scent of adrenaline with each exhausted deep breath in.
Just as I was thinking that in a matter of seconds it would all be over, my foot slipped on the wet grass. Propelled by the forward-moving momentum of my belly, I skidded forward faster than the speed of light. My arms and hands reached out instinctively to brace myself for a fall, but that chain link grid must have been precisely placed there by an angel.
And by a twist of gravity and fate, I was the first boy to touch the fence.
As we all turned back to face the school, I could see classmates jumping up and down (even at that age people like to root for the underdog). I could feel the heat on my cheeks as they blushed with that odd childhood mix of pride and shame.
On Field Day, I represented my class well. I came home with a white third-place ribbon in my hand, a head full of dreams, and a chest so swollen from pride that I wore stretchy t-shirts for days afterward.
After all of these years and all of the subsequent milestones I still remember this singular achievement.
The memory came running back to me the other day when I heard someone say:
We all live in the dash.
What do you mean?, I asked.
In my mind, all that I could conjure was how quickly those 50 yards seemed to pass beneath my feet so many years ago. To an 8 year old, all of the exhilarating joys and dismal tragedies of life can indeed be found in a 50 yard foot race and its finish line.
No matter who you are or what mark you make on history, ultimately your name is going to be followed by the year you were born and the year you died—nothing separating them but a dash. So everything you do in life fits into that little piece of punctuation between two dates.
Though one could protest this trivialization of life, it is at least partly true. Think about all of the amazing men and women of history who accomplished extraordinary things, sometimes even feats that changed the course of human civilization. Then think about how much the average person on the street could tell you about any of them.
So often the largest obstacles we face in life are those posed by the value we place on how others will judge us.
But if life really can be summed up as a line between two dates, perhaps we are better off making the decisions that bring us personal satisfaction and forgetting about the opinions of others as easily as they will forget about us.
Seize each moment.
When someone asks, raise your hand.
When given the opportunity to run, run.