A Return to Recess

-Jack Mullaney

At 5 AM every Wednesday morning, the creaking sound of my front door can be heard as I saunter out into the darkness for a short jog.  The tightly bound spring slams the metal frame shut behind me, seeming to retaliate for the rude awakening, portraying emotions not all that different from those coursing through my own veins.  This jog is a mere warm up for what will follow in an hour and twenty-seven minutes, but it allows my brain to dust off the stresses of the day prior.

My route takes me past my elementary school, an unassuming brick building constructed back in the seventies.  The sight of the old playground in the back always provides a flow of nostalgia as I cruise past.  For me, the playground was my paradise.  And at recess, I was free.

For thirty minutes every day, I had no fear in the world, sprinting across the field to catch a “Hail Mary” from my buddy, or diving down the slide to evade a tag in a game of “Cops and Robbers.”  The best part was that you didn’t have to be the next Michael Jordan to hop in on a round of Lightning.  Starting a high speed chase was as simple as tagging a stranger on the swings and yelling “You’re it!”  See, recess wasn’t just a time of day.  It was a state of mind.

Yet, as I got older, things started to change.  I stopped being able to detach myself from a fear of uncertainty, and even worse, I began to have doubts about who I could associate with.  Suddenly, a classmate holding a baseball mitt and ball was no longer an open invitation for catch.  That game of kickball looked like fun, but after dropping the winning out last week, it was probably best if I stayed away.  And you know, there was just too much I didn’t know about the new kid wearing a T-shirt of my favorite band to strike up a conversation.

With each passing year, these hesitations only multiplied, and soon there became a divide between me and the rest of the world.  Rather than build bridges, I built barriers.  I developed my comfort zone.  My cell phone was no longer a device for communicating, but rather, a signal to those around me that I’d rather not.  Fittingly, by the time I made it to high school, the institution of recess was caput.  So too, was the state of mind.

That was, until this January, when the spirit that had been left out on that playground was revived 30 minutes up I-35W.  On a morning when wind chills were dipping below -30 and most of Minneapolis was hitting the snooze button, recess was reborn.

Even though temperatures were hitting record lows, warm hugs weren’t something I was ecstatic about the morning I first showed up at NP MSP.
Even though temperatures were hitting record lows, warm hugs weren’t something I was ecstatic about the morning I first showed up at NP MSP.

Sporting a ski mask and a bright red stocking hat, my face was barely visible the morning I just showed up at November Project Minneapolis.  And yet, before I could even introduce myself, I found my torso engulfed in a bear hug.

Whoa there, buddy, I thought, my own mother is lucky to earn a hug from me.  I don’t know who you are or what you do.  For all I know, you could have a criminal record.

While everything inside me squirmed as more anonymous hugs ensued, it was the exact thing I needed to begin freeing myself of the apprehensions and hesitations I had molded over the years, and start to understand what November Project was really about.

The lesson continued a few weeks later in Baton Rouge, where I overcame an embarrassing GI disaster to achieve my longtime goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  I had crossed the finish line covered in my nutritional mistake (We’ll leave it at that), and even after cleaning up back in my hotel, I shuffled sheepishly around the finish festival, convinced everyone knew I was THAT guy who elected to skip the porta-potties.  However, with my new grassroots gear in plain sight, I was greeted like a brother by some NP New Orleans tribe members who’d run the race.  They didn’t know anything about me, but it didn’t matter.  There was a level of trust they placed in me, one that I had yet to fully comprehend

On a vacation to New York City in February, it started to come together.  I found myself running opposite the traffic of a half marathon passing through Central Park.  Clad in my grassroots gear once again, I heard shouts coming from a group of racers running past.

“Yeah, November Project!”  “What’s up, MSP?!”

These people were in the middle of a RACE, something that clearly could have commanded 100% of their focus.  And yet, they were giving me their attention, and wishing me well.

 

November Project is about understanding that we can find our greatest strength in others, but oftentimes, what stands in the way is ourselves.  In believing in others, we cast away prejudices and stereotypes that pollute our ability to connect.  In believing in ourselves, we embrace a sense of vulnerability that frees us of self-conscious fears of how we are perceived.  The fusion of these ideas opens our world, and enriches our lives.  One of our member tribes put this on display so eloquently a couple weeks ago.

While the rest of their city was dealing with riots that exposed the cruelty of creating artificial barriers, November Project Baltimore was doing this.

To those who feel trapped by the walls they’ve built around them; to those who long for the days when they’d shovel down their tater tots so they could sprint outside; to those who just want to let their minds and hearts run free again; I have news.  Recess has returned.

 

Just Show Up.

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