When I was a kid, I spent countless hours at the local skatepark trying desperately to improve my skills on a set of prized, street-style inline skates.
At that time, the skatepark was a pretty ruthless place. There were the skaters, tattooed and wearing baggy clothes, going airborne on skateboards and cursing at younger kids.
Then there were bikers with backward hats, careening through the air at a thousand miles per hour, threatening de facto death upon anyone who dared get in their way.
The two camps hated each other, but they agreed on one thing: anyone who wasn’t on a skateboard or a bike sucked. They didn’t deserve to be there.
That was me. A scrawny, almost-cool kid on inline skates, trying—really trying—to get better.
If you got in the way, you were lucky if you caught a glare. On the bad days, you’d catch some nasty words or see your life flash before your eyes as a 17-year-old crossed your path so close that you felt the heat of his cigarette singe the tips of your hair.
You were in a crew, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t, you better stay out of their way.
It’s been a good 20 years since those days, but that same park is still there. Now when I go, it’s because I’m bringing my 12-year-old, X, to ride, or to see his newest tricks. Often, we’ll go early in the morning—as I used to—because you get the park to yourself. But last night, we went after school, after dinner, in the cool of September’s autumnal dusk, and the place was packed.
Pushing aside my own childish anxieties, we walked up and I surveyed X’s face looking for similar markers of worry or resistance. To my surprise, I saw none. As soon as his wheels hit concrete, someone hollered at him. Cool—a friend. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I watched him for a while, careful to stay out of the way of the 30-some kids flying by on various wheeled implements of destruction. At first, I focused pretty closely on him and tried to give helpful pointers on tricks he was trying to learn.
Every time he went airborne, a part of me marveled while another part of me gasped in horror.
But as I eased into the situation and began to really notice what was going on, I found myself surprised. All around, kids were talking, laughing, at ease, and most notably, happy. Bikers comingled with skaters, kids on scooters weaving between them. Newbies tried new tricks and the clear veterans of the park waited patiently, giving them space and advice.
When someone passed too close to someone else, they said, “Excuse me” or “Oh sorry, man!” When someone fell, everyone stopped and checked in, whether it was a 7- or 17-year-old.
My disbelief was crowned when a 20-something guy with baggy pants, frizzy hair, and an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt rode a well-loved skateboard through the middle of the park, hollering at a couple other kids. But instead of yelling at them to get out of the way, or to hurry up, he shouted words of encouragement saying, “Hey! Don’t ever call yourself fugly! You gotta’ believe in yourself, man!”
I stared in amazement. I could hardly believe my ears.
In that moment, time slowed down a little. The sun was cresting the mountains to the west and the momentary magenta hue was dream-like.
Here I was, standing on a concrete pad in the middle of a park, full of what a lot of people would consider society’s lesser contributors, and yet I was watching heaven. People moved, they flowed; they radiated love and respect and compassion. As kings and queens of concrete, these kids had learned to be good to each other.
That’s a lot more than I can say for most adults.
We only stayed for an hour or so, but that hour was one of the most inspiring of this whole year. It renewed my hope in people and fortified my hope in the future.
In a concrete jungle, I was gifted a glimpse into what’s possible, and it reminded me that it’s always possible to transform negativity into goodness.