The swingset

I have a clear memory of “delivering justice” to a playground bully when I was in Kindergarten or first grade. It stands out so clearly, and I believe it’s a foundational moment in the development of my personality and behavior.

There was a swing set, which I loved. Swinging was maybe my favorite part of the playground. I think I loved the freedom of flying through the air while being secure and tethered.

Which superpower would you like to have? Flight or invisibility? Back then, I would have answered immediately, Flight. Now I unhesitatingly choose invisibility. Something changed between then and now. I want to rediscover that thirst for flight.

On the swing set, some kids were swinging. All the seats were taken, so I had to wait my turn. Another kid didn’t want to wait and came up behind one of the ones on a swing and started pushing them, harder and harder. The kid on the swing was yelling, “Stop! Stop!” They were going too high or too fast. They didn’t want to be pushed, they wanted to pump their legs themselves. It was too much for them, so they jumped off and ran away. The kid who had pushed them gleefully claimed the vacated swing. They had forced the other kid off, and now it was their turn to swing.

I was angry. That was so unfair. That was so mean. That bully shouldn’t have done that. He should have waited his turn and not ruined the other kid’s enjoyment. Why did he have to push the other one off? It was so unnecessary. He could’ve just waited. So, I wanted to show him justice, or “give him a taste of his own medicine.”

I marched over to where this bully was swinging away, and I started pushing his back hard, so he went higher and faster than expected. I kept relentlessly pushing and saying, “How do you like that? How do you like that?” My dad, who was supervising me (this was before school started, not recess), angrily yelled my name from across the playground and shook his head. I immediately stopped. I walked away.

He didn’t understand the situation. All he saw was me pushing the other kid angrily. Did he know why I was doing it? No, and we didn’t ever discuss it. It was unimportant to him—it was just a short moment. I’m not saying that I was justified in pushing the kid. I just wish we could have discussed it, and my feelings behind it, and when it’s appropriate to confront people.

I was trying to defend the other kid who had been pushed off the swings, not just hurting someone out of the blue. I was five or six and didn’t know to discuss it. I just learned that you don’t confront people, and you don’t fight back. I thought in very black and white ways. I took all of those thoughts and feelings—anger at injustice, wanting to show someone first-hand how they hurt someone else, wanting to make someone understand, wanting to confront someone, wanting to tell them they were wrong—and just attached a label to them collectively: No. Don’t.