Thursday, February 26, 2015

Speak Up for Those Unable (and sometimes those unwilling)

This childhood incident flipped me out.
Throughout my life people have inspired me in unexpected ways. Sometimes when it happens it just feels like an ordinary experience. Only later do I realize that what occurred changed the way I thought about life.

So it was in elementary school gym class. It involved a trampoline and included a boy named James Clark.

We were not best friends nor even close really. In fact, our only association was that we went to the same school and shared some of the same classes.

Still, what he did for me back then is something I think about to this very day. In fact, it was one of those kind of things that has guided my values and life choices.

Not sure what James Clark goes by today but back then we just referred to him simply as “Clark.” Why we called him that I’m not sure, except that maybe our gym teacher, Mr. Campbell, referred to us all by our last names.

Do schools even have gym class anymore?
Clark was one of the few kids outside of gym to whom we used just a last name. He was something of a preadolescent icon. That’s because he was the single most talented athlete in our grade, bar none. At least that’s how I remember it.

Clark was the strong, silent type. He could do anything and was good at everything. Never said much but he was always the first guy you picked in kickball, basketball, you name it. He was the fittest, fastest, most agile kid on the floor.

Me? I was scrawniest. Well, one of them anyway. Timid too. Still, I could hold my own in gym. A couple times I was next to the last kid left in dodge ball! Like most people, I’d have my moments. Every now and then at least. It’s just Clark was in a league of his own; he was always in the sports spotlight.

But there’s one moment I doubt Clark, Mr. Campbell or anyone else in gym class remembers. Except for me. In fact, it turned out to be a defining moment in my life. It was during trampoline week, my favorite time in gym, because I was so good at it.

A simple act helped shape my understanding of social justice.
“No flips!” Mr. Campbell barked as a reminder about our skill level. Then he walked to the other side of the gym where his desk was to grade papers or something and we began.

Clark was first up. He jumped high and sure, performing knee drops and seat drops to perfection. One by one everyone else took a turn on the tramp. There was no order to who went next – just whoever got up there first.

Me being me, I waited politely for my chance. Except it never came. Everyone had been up and folks had begun taking second, even third turns. Back then I wasn’t very good at speaking up and so I resigned myself to not getting a chance to participate.

We were nearing the end of gym class when somebody said, “Give Reynolds a turn.”

It was Clark. The way was clear.

On the tramp, I was high; in more ways than one. So much that I performed a forbidden flip. I didn’t stick the landing, but I didn’t care. Mr. Campbell did though. As punishment, he ordered me off the tramp and told me to give him 20 clappers (a form of pushups). I didn’t mind; I had gotten a chance on the tramp. Clark had spoken up for me. Clark did!

Why Clark did that I’ll never know. But it had an impact on me I’ll never forget. Maybe that’s where my passion for social justice comes from, and why I try to speak up for those unable to do so themselves. In any event, thanks James Clark.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

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