When the P.A. system crackled to life in my grammar school, chairs in 26 classrooms scraped backwards and we all rose to pledge Allegiance and sing My Country ’Tis of Thee in synch with the piped-in voices. If we were lucky, we’d also get an announcement of some sort: a reminder about the Halloween parade (as if we could forget!) or the Fifth Grade Science Fair, or a public safety message exhaled by an eighth grader.
And four or five times a year, the P.A. system would terrify us with a recorded Today in History message: Pearl Harbor Day or Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre. Eventually, the P.A. system would wear itself out and grades K to 8 would return to the quiet energy of their private classrooms, the connecting thread snapped.
But sometimes, in winter, as the school day trickled to its conclusion, the P.A. system would spark to life with bold abandon and an eighth grade voice would grab our attention: “We’ve just learned that the Fire Department flooded the tennis courts this morning, and they’re freezing nicely. There’ll be ice skating tonight at Sickles Park!”
The reaction was electric. We had no ponds in our small town; the rivers were massive and tidal; and the ocean was, well, the ocean. So unless we snuck onto another town’s skating pond, this was it. And it was great.
I actually disliked skating. On the frozen marsh pond behind my cousin’s house, I’d fretfully wobble over tilted ankles — probably crying — until pity released me. But the Sickles Park tennis courts? This was something else entirely.
On those nights, two icy courts, snuggled in tall fencing, glowed like a magical box in the lights provided by the Fire Department. The kids glided in a broad dense circle, like a pulsing bumpy donut with sprinkles in fifty hues. Falling would have been a disaster — but you literally could not fall: we were packed so tightly together that the least wobble would be braced by another’s shoulder, arm or hip (intentionally or not).
Best of all, we held hands. Gloves and mittens, really, but also the warmth and caring of people who we suddenly liked more than life itself. Packed into a revolving scrum of children, we were giddy with the night: the admiring stars, the clusters of parents with hot chocolate, the metamorphosis of cracked asphalt into a glittering platter serving up joy just for us, just for tonight.
We held hands to guide each other in speed or angle (to the extent the massing allowed). We held hands to abate the cold. And we held hands — we ten and twelve and fourteen year olds full of insecurity, rivalry and angst — because connecting in this way like a skein of mitten-shaped yarn allowed us to forget all of that for a moment.
Holding each other tightly also allowed us to remember. We wore a hundred colors in a hundred sizes in a hundred different packages of muscles, fears and longings. And there we all were this one magical night helping each other around and around the circle: where being together, doing this one thing, holding the hand of someone maybe you didn’t even really like, offering one’s back to a falling stranger, was the only life purpose that any of us would ever need.
The tennis courts would typically thaw the next day. And we’d all return to our usual cushioned clubs, with the unthinking attacks and defenses, the self-conscious stiffness of trying to belong.
And we never leaned on each other’s shoulders or held hands — until the next hard freeze when the P.A. system told us that it was okay, actually, to move through life holding and being held, because the ice is too hard, the cold is too piercing and the nighttime void is too deep to do anything else.
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community site. Follow this link and scroll all the way to the bottom to see other short essays about “Hold.”
Readers, I’m delighted that several of you have are browsing my past essays — almost 100. The easiest way to explore is by consulting the “word cloud” featured at the very bottom of this post. Find a theme or two that interests you and sift through the sands…
Also, do you want to receive notifications by email each time I make a post? Just scroll all the way down this page (next to the “word cloud”), look to the left and click on the black button that says “Join Me!”