A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


It didn’t take long for everyone to know what Dean had done during the morning recess.  News swept through Valley View Elementary School Popeye like swept through spinach.

“Dean jumped off the top of the monkey bars into the snow!”

It was a significant accomplishment – never mind that the “storm of the decade” had prompted school custodians to shovel huge piles of snow to within a few feet of the monkey bar apparatus.  The monkey bars were still the tallest structure on the playground (not counting the swing set, but even Superman wouldn’t dare to leap off the top of the swing set).

For a few hours Dean was the coolest of the cool.  Everyone was talking about his leap into the snow – until lunch recess, when Joe L. one-upped him by somehow pulling himself close to the top of the swing set and then dropping into a pile of snow below.

This was mind-boggling, even with snow piled six feet high.  Dean’s feat paled by comparison, and he faded from our collective consciousness like the guy who played the oldest son on “Bonanza” until he got too big for his black britches and left the show.  Whoever he was.

Joe L. was now officially the Lord of the Swings, which was a little problematic for me.  Not only was Joe L. the second biggest guy in the school (behind me), but it was widely believed that he was probably tougher than I was and therefore more worthy of respect.  And then there was the whole name thing.  For years I had been “Joe” and he had been “Joe L.” or “the other Joe.”  But unless I did something dramatic to take him down a peg or two, I ran a serious risk of becoming “Joe W.”  Or – horrors! – “the other Joe.”

I plotted with my two best friends to come up with a stunt that would be bigger, better and more outrageous than Joe L.’s swing drop.  Albert suggested that I jump from the school’s roof.  I rejected that possibility because: 1) I didn’t know how to get up to the roof, and 2) the fall would most likely kill me.

“Well, maybe,” Albert allowed.  “But it would sure be cool!”

George then came up with a suitable alternative.  Valley View had wide, covered outdoor stairs on the south end of the school.  The custodians had piled the biggest pile of snow against the south end of the building, and I could probably reach it if I climbed over the railing and pushed off from the second floor landing with all my strength.  Probably.

Since I couldn’t come up with a better idea, and since the afternoon recess bell was about to ring, I decided to go for it.  Thanks to George and Albert, a small crowd quickly gathered to watch.  I climbed carefully over the rail and hung precariously from the edge as I looked out toward the snow pile, which suddenly seemed so far away.  In the distance I could see the recess supervisor hustling toward me.  I needed to act quickly or risk becoming “the other Joe.”

I leaned out over the edge as my friends urged me to jump.  My hand slipped on the cold metal rail.  I leaned . . . and leaned . . . and was about to leap when it suddenly occurred to me that what I was about to do wasn’t outrageous – it was stupid.  Even if I hit the snow it was still going to hurt.  And how cool would that be – especially if I cried or something?

As my classmates booed and catcalled, I climbed back to the second floor landing.  I got plenty of teasing plus three days of detention for climbing over the rail, but it could have been worse.  The next day a fifth-grader tried to leap from the landing – and missed.  He ended up with a broken leg, I think – I don’t really remember for sure.  I don’t even remember his name.

And it seems to me that that’s the risk of being outrageous.  While your behavior may be notoriously memorable, you may be overshadowed by your own outrageousness – and forgotten.

Are you listening, Justin and Janet?

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--- © Joseph Walker