A Lesson Learned

Memories can be good and bad. They often represent a turning point or important event in one’s life. They can be an epiphany or just something that makes an impression on you; that changes or reinforces your way of thinking.

One such memory for me dates back over half a century but is still as clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday. I was thirteen years old and in my first year of high school in a town of 5,000. I had stayed after school to watch a football game. It was a big game. Our senior team was playing our arch-rival school from the neighbouring town. The sidelines were crowded. There were no stands. Lots of families had come out and lots of teachers had stayed after work to watch the game. The cheerleading squads were trying to outdo each other and were leading their team’s supporters in chants.

During the second half the tide was beginning to turn in my school’s favour and some mild heckling of the other team had started among some of our more boisterous younger spectators. A few of them decided it would be a good idea to steal the other school’s mascot while everyone’s attention was on the game. The other team’s mascot was not a person in costume but simply a large, plush stuffed toy. They came rushing back to our team’s side triumphant and not knowing what to do with their prize (or wanting to hide the evidence of their deed) they gave the mascot to a very young boy — no more than three or four years old — who was walking around alone behind our sideline. He seemed delighted with his new toy, hugging it and wobbling around trying to keep his balance, much to the amusement of the crowd. The mascot was almost bigger than him.

The theft had not gone unnoticed. It was not long before a supporter of the other team — maybe sixteen or seventeen, accompanied by his girlfriend and identifiable by his school jacket — came walking purposefully toward the kid with the stolen mascot. He grabbed the mascot away rather roughly, causing the kid to fall down on his butt in that bouncy way that a kid learning to walk does. The kid immediately burst into tears and started wailing, not in pain, for he was not really hurt, but for his lost new toy. One of the spectators — a well-built guy in his mid to late thirties — witnessed this and followed the mascot retriever as he strode away. He caught up with him and tapped him on the shoulder. The younger guy stopped and turned, handed the mascot to his girlfriend and was making a show of taking off his jacket as if to prepare for a fight when the older guy sucker-punched him, putting him in turn on his butt. The older guy waited for him to get up and then turned and walked away, leaving him to return to his side of the field with the retrieved mascot, wiping his bloody nose on his knuckles, his girlfriend clutching his arm. Not a word was spoken.

I have tried to imagine what would ensue if this happened today. The police would be called. The older guy would be charged with assault. The younger guy would be given stress counselling. His parents would sue. The parents of the toddler would be charged with abandonment and the child would be taken away by children’s services until a safe foster home could found. The game would be called and statements would be issued by the principals of both schools about the possible suspension of their football programs and the need for increased security.

Watching this little drama unfold fifty years ago I was struck by how right and just it seemed. After a brief, breathless moment everything returned to normal. The game went on uninterrupted. No one had been really hurt and a valuable life lesson had been delivered to me and probably to the guy taking the punch: Do not pick on someone smaller than you and risk becoming the target of someone even bigger.

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