Every day when the bell would ring at the end of 1st Grade, Mike Hall and I would race to the bus stop. Every day it was the same. Mike, a classmate with a large red birthmark on his face (that my mother prompted me many times to ignore), would beat me to the bus stop and be first in line. Except for the times she talked about it, I never even thought about his birthmark. All I cared about was beating Mike Hall to the bus stop and being first in line.
He was faster than me, but I refused to accept it. I was sure if I just could find some way to push a little harder I would beat him. I tried different techniques of better organizing my stuff during the final moments of class. Mike was always better at it. During the last few minutes before the bell rang, I could not have told you was said in class. All I could do was study Mike Hall. He sat like a Cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, absolutely still, taut and ready to sprint. I searched for signs of weakness, but saw none. I don’t know how he did it, but he was always ready. Every day, he beat me out that door. Every day, he was number one and I was inescapably number two.
When I think back on this time, the thing that’s most extraordinary to me is that I never gave up competing with him. Later in life, if someone were to beat me every time we competed, I would certainly surrender and redirect my efforts elsewhere. But this was first grade elementary school and I had not yet learned to accept defeat. Like the Coyote to the Road Runner, I showed up every day for school knowing there was an anvil with my name on it, but believing today would be the day it would land on Mike and not me.
We were constantly competitive with each other for reasons I don’t exactly recall. If we sat next to each other in the auditorium, we fought for the arm rests. I never did that with anyone else. It just never came up. Until Mike Hall, I didn’t even know that elbows might collide and want the exact same location on the arm rest. Tetherball, DodgeBall, Basketball, or 4-Square were all brutal contests to the finish with the end results usually being contested. It was like we needed a referee to follow us around and settle the constant collision of 7-year old egos.
Mike Hall won the lion’s share of these competitions. While I’m sure I must have won a small percentage of the time, the feeling I had as a 7-year old was that I “never” won. Ever. I was never quite as fast as he was, as strong as he was, or as good of an athlete. It seemed like this was going to be the case for the rest of our lives.
Until one day when something happened.
The bell had rung and we were racing to the bus stop as normal. It was probably about a 50-60 yard run outside across polished concrete. As it was every day of my life in First Grade, I was sprinting as fast as my legs would take me while staring at the back of Mike Hall’s head. It was always like running in a dream to race Mike. No matter how hard you told your legs to run, they would never accelerate enough to catch him. Just as I was about to give up, God intervened.
Mike slipped and fell.
All of his books and school papers went flying everywhere as I ran past him for the very first time, ever. I saw the empty finish line for first place at the bus stop and kept running. I had never stood there before. I was finally going to be there. I was finally going to know how it felt to be number ONE. I finally was going to get my wish, my prayer! Yes, I had decided this was something worthy of God’s attention and had prayed about it often enough. And now my prayers would be answered. I would be FIRST, Mike Hall would be second! Other kids would notice and life would change for the better. Time slowed down. I heard music. Everything became clear to me as I ran in slow motion like Chariots of Fire.
I already had my victory dance planned upon arrival when his face flashed across my mind’s eye. I rewound the tape and remembered what a major spill he’d just taken. Was that fear in his eyes as he fell? I spun around to look and he was still on the ground, all of his papers strewn around him. I looked at the finish line 10 yards ahead, and then looked back to Mike.
I ran back to him.
I don’t know why I chose to do that. I was not a particularly charitable boy and if I was, the last person in the world I would have been generous to was Mike Hall. But there was something weird about him falling that hard. I still don’t know what it was that had me running back to him. I wasn’t thinking. I just reacted. Maybe I wasn’t sure what my universe would be like if I beat him. Perhaps there was something about wanting to win fair and square, or maybe, deep down, there was safety in being #2. I honestly don’t know. But I went back, helped pick him up off the ground, collected all the things that he’d dropped and handed them back to him. I was going to say something, but he turned, sprinted to first place in the bus stop line, and left me standing there feeling kind of stupid.
As 7-year olds, we didn’t have the language to talk about what just happened, but it left me feeling puzzled about both of our actions. Maybe it confirmed that there was this bloodthirsty, survival of the fittest rule that all 7-year old, competitive boys were supposed to practice, and compassion had no place. But either way, something shifted that day and I stopped racing Mike Hall to the bus stop. I would still get there quickly, but I didn’t care any more about being first or second. Fourth or fifth place seemed enough. Mike continued to be first in line for as long as I can remember that year. The next year, my father got a job in a different town, so we moved far away.
I still think about Mike Hall from time to time and wonder if he remembers this day. I wonder if he’s still racing and winning races or if that has become less important to him as well. I wonder how I might be different if I had not stopped and gone back to help him, but I think I’m glad I did.