My father walked me to the park. I held his hand the entire way. If I was being honest, I was a little nervous about going to the park. I’d heard stories about what goes on there. People throwing sand at other people. Knocking them off their swing. Pushing them down the slide.
I’d also heard some good things. People playing together, building castles in the sand, and creating fun and new ways to play together. That sounded like fun. But yeah, I was worried about bullies.
We arrived at the edge of the park. My father let go of my hand.
“Aren’t you coming with me, Dad?” I said, looking up at him. The sun sure was bright today.
My father bent down to speak to me. “No, son. You go play. I’ll be right here on this bench watching you though.”
“What should I do? Should I go on the slide? Or a swing? What will be the most fun?” I asked.
“The choice is yours, kiddo. Play with whatever you want. Make friends if you desire. Or play alone and explore the areas of the park that interest you. I just want you to have fun and be happy, and be nice to the other kids.”
My father sat down on a bench.
I looked around at the park. There were kids everywhere. I saw some kids building sand castles together. Boy that looked like fun. I wondered if they would let me play with them.
I also saw a big kid guarding the slide and challenging other kids to try to get past him. I didn’t want to get involved in that.
I took a tentative step onto the playground, looking back one last time at my father. He was smiling, and he waved me on encouragingly.
I decided to walk around the park a little bit first, before I decided what I wanted to do.
The swings were all taken and there were kids waiting patiently in line for their turns. I’d come back to those later.
The slide, like I mentioned before, was in a chaotic struggle between the big kid who stood in front of the ladder and the kids who all wanted to go on it. I crept a little closer but not too close.
“Hey, you can’t hog the slide! Give us a turn,” I heard one little boy say.
The bigger boy stood with his arms folded in front of the ladder. “I’d be happy to let you on the slide if you give me all your money.”
“You don’t own the slide. Step aside and let everyone use it!” the other boy argued.
“If you want to slide you’ll have to get past me first. I only let my friends slide free.”
“What friends?” the smaller boy guffawed. The big boy blustered, grabbed the smaller boy and shoved him to the ground. The little boy looked scared but he managed to throw some sand at the bigger boy.
That’s when the big boy threw himself on top of the smaller one and started pounding him into the sand. The rest of the kids stood back. No one said or did anything to stop them.
I turned back to look at my father, wondering if he would intervene. He sat on his bench smiling at me. Why was he smiling? Didn’t he see what was happening?
I turned back to the boys. The smaller guy was getting his face punched now and he was starting to bleed. I couldn’t stand still any longer.
I stepped over towards them and in the most polite way possible I said, “Excuse me. Will you please stop fighting? You’re hurting each other.”
The big boy stopped just long enough to stare at me, while continuing to pin his squirming prey to the ground.
The big boy said, “Shut the hell up. This doesn’t concern you.”
I said, “There is no need for this violence. Please stop and let him go.”
The small boy looked at me with pleading eyes. The big boy glared at me and got off the little boy to come stand in front of me.
“Hey, mind your own business. This is my slide and I decide who uses it,” the big boy said.
I looked at him. I mean really looked at him. He wasn’t actually angry. He was sad. He felt lonely, and he was scared. So I said to him, “You’re not alone you know.”
The boy said, “What did you say?”
I repeated myself. “You aren’t alone. We’re all here with you, and we want to be your friends if you’ll let us.”
He looked around at the other kids, none of whom looked particularly eager to be his friend.
He said angrily, “I don’t have any friends. No one likes to play with me.”
I said, “I’ll play with you.”
A small glimmer of hope found his eyes, then they turned cold again. “Yeah, right. You want to play with me? I don’t believe you.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. With as much love as I could call up, I looked him square in the eye and said, “Come on, let’s hang out. I’m new to the park and would love it if you could show me around.”
His body relaxed a little bit. He looked back at the group and said, “Fine, whatever, you guys can have the stupid slide. I’m done with it anyway.”
The kids smiled and began climbing up the slide’s ladder. In moments they were happily playing on the slide.
I said to my new buddy, “Have you ever built a castle out of sand?”
He smiled a crooked smile and said, “Boy have I! I once made the most amazing castle you’ve ever seen. It was 3 feet tall and had a moat and everything!”
I said, “That sounds amazing.”
“Yeah, but then someone came along and squashed it. They just stomped all over it. I spent hours making it and they destroyed it in seconds.”
I said, “That sucks. I’d probably be upset if someone did that to something I’d created too.”
“Yeah, well it was no big deal really. I just stopped making castles. Then no one could hurt me again.”
I said, “I see. Well I’ve never built a sand castle. Do you think you could show me how to make one?”
He looked at me like he was sizing me up. I hoped he wasn’t about to sock me in the face. Then he seemed to relax a bit and said, “Well… sure. Yeah, why not? I mean, if you need me to and everything.”
I said, “Yes, please teach me how to build a sand castle.”
We walked to an area no one was using. He got down on the ground and started moving sand around with his hands. He didn’t even hesitate. He seemed to already have the plan in his mind, and he moved and sculpted the sand quickly and with great dexterity.
I said, “This is awesome. Is that a turret?”
He said, “Yeah. And now I’m going to make some windows.” He was concentrating really hard, the tip of his tongue hanging out of his mouth slightly.
I looked up and saw other kids creeping closer to our area. They were whispering to each other. I waved them over.
One kid said, “Hey, that’s really neat.”
Another kid said, “Yeah I’ve never seen a sand castle with that much detail.”
“It sure is big. How do you keep the sand together?” said another.
My friend looked up from what he was doing and I could feel his energy become guarded. He said, “This is my castle. Don’t come any closer, you might wreck it.”
The kids all took a small step back. He went back to working on his castle, adding a drawbridge over the moat.
I said, “How do you keep that part from collapsing?”
He said, “Oh it’s easy, you just have to make sure the sand is wet enough so it sticks together and is thick enough to withstand someone pushing on it. See… come here, I’ll show you.”
I moved in closer. He took my hand and put it on the drawbridge. Then he said, “Push a little. See? It’s thick and the sand is solid. That’s not going to collapse any time soon.”
I said, “That’s awesome. I really like what you’ve created here.”
He smiled and kept working on the finer details of the castle. He was making patterns on the walls that made it look like stone.
He looked up at the other kids and seemed to consider something. Then he said, “If you guys want to, you could make some smaller buildings around the castle. You know, we could create like a community or something.”
The kids looked eager to participate. Before I knew it, clusters of kids started working on building other sand structures.
When my friend was done he helped the other kids make their structures stronger, giving them tips and advice on how to build.
We spent hours working on that sand castle community. When we were done we had even created streets connecting each building together.
Everyone started high fiving each other. We stepped back and looked at our city. It was awesome.
I looked over at my father and he was smiling at me. I looked back at my new friend and said, “Thank you for sharing your gift with me. I’ve learned a lot from you today.”
He clapped me on the back and said, “Well thanks for playing with me. You’re a pretty cool kid.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve got to get going now. But if you’re going to be here tomorrow, I’d love to hang out with you again.”
He said, “You bet! And tomorrow you can teach me something.”
I said, “Deal!”
Just as I was turning to leave he said, “Hey, thanks for what you did for me … you know… with the…”
I interrupted him, “Yeah, no problem. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
He turned around and continued chatting with the other kids, who were all eager to learn more from him about building intricate sand structures.
I skipped over to my dad who still sat waiting patiently for me on that bench.
“Hello, son. How did you enjoy the park?” he asked.
I replied, “Well, it was a little scary at first, and you saw what happened with that kid bullying the other kids.”
He said, “I did indeed. And I saw you befriend him. Why did you do that?”
I said, “Well, I could just tell that he was feeling sad, alone and even a little scared. I knew he just needed a friend. And I knew I could give him a little love.”
My dad said, “Perfect. You did really well today, son.”
“Thanks for bringing me to the park. Can I come again tomorrow?”
“Sure, you can come back whenever you wish. You can have different experiences in the park every day. You can choose to be friends or you can choose to be a bully.”
“Dad, I’m never going to be a bully.”
“Well, you never know when you might feel a little scared, alone, or sad. It could happen,” he said.
“Would you be mad at me if I ever bullied another kid?”
“Not mad, no. I would just remind you that you’re loved and not alone. I’ll always be close by. And I’ll always love you, even when you forget.”
“I would never forget that you loved me, Dad.”
He smiled and said jokingly, “Oh I don’t know. You seemed pretty engaged in building that castle. I don’t think you even remembered I was sitting here watching you.”
I took my dad’s hand and we started to walk back home. I said, “Well maybe I forgot for like a minute or something, but I knew you were there the whole time.”
He said, “Always.”