My home town of Salem, Oregon holds citywide relay races for elementary school kids every spring. For years they were known as the JC Relays. In more recent years, they’ve been sponsored by Countrywide Insurance, so they’ve been rebranded the Countrywide Kids Relays. (They’ll always be the JC Relays to me.)
It’s a competitive affair in the sense that schools hold tryouts, and the fastest runners in each grade, first through fifth, make the boys’, girls’, and coed teams. At the fifth grade level there’s also a Mayor’s Mile race. The fact that it’s competitive means that many kids—in fact most kids—never get to run. I was only marginally athletic in grade school—middle and high school were where I excelled—so I never ran in the relays. I watched my friends run, and I imagined what it must be like to be down on the track at Bush Park with what seemed to be the whole city cheering for you…but it was never something I got the chance to do.
One of the advantages of being a student at a small school, obviously, is that your odds of running are increased. Jonah, our fourth grader, ran in both first and second grade. Although he’s actually pretty good at distance, he’s only a moderately fast sprinter. When he didn’t make the third grade cut last year, he was bummed. Tears, oh, the tears! Most of his friends were racing, but he wouldn’t get to. I told him about my experience of never having run, but I doubted it helped him cope much. Kids’ perspectives tend to be especially insular: Who really cares if Dad didn’t ever get to run? I don’t get to run!
That our daughter Elisha, a first grader at the time, made her team didn’t help Jonah’s mood any.
But in the build-up to this year’s fourth grade tryouts, Jonah was optimistic. He’d counted the numbers, measured his talents against his male classmates during recess and PE, and believed himself to have a pretty good chance of making at least the coed team. Even after the tryouts, he retained his confidence, but I knew he was “on the bubble” as we used to say—him making the team was an iffy affair.
All of which made this morning’s conversation with the school PE teacher somewhat startling.
“Did Jonah tell you what he did?” he began.
“Uh, no.” And instantly I’m thinking, “Did he break a window? Get in a fight? Not turn in homework? No, there’s no homework in PE.” I was grasping. I had no idea what Jonah might have done.
“It figures,” said the PE teacher. “I announced the relay teams yesterday—hardest thing I have to do in this job—and I announced them to the whole class.”
“Like cuts in sports,” I responded, relieved that I wouldn’t be paying for a window at least. “I hated that when I was coaching soccer. It’s never an easy thing to do.”
“Yeah, well, Jonah gave up his spot.”
And I just stared at him. Because I don’t think it quite registered with me what he was saying.
“After I announced the teams, this other boy was really sad and crying about not making the team, so Jonah came up and asked me if he could give his spot to him.”
I didn’t know what to say. I thanked him, and repeated that, no, Jonah had not told me that.
“Gold, huh?” he said.
I remembered how badly Jonah felt last year, how I’d tried to comfort him, and felt like I’d failed. I thought about his efforts this year, and how he had expressed both his desire to make the team and his confidence that he would. These chances, after all, don’t come around very often. Then I thought about how he’d been able to, for at least one moment, look outside himself, and in an act of compassion give an opportunity to another kid—an opportunity that his father never had.
“Gold,” I said.