My elementary school was one of the few “walking” elementary schools left in southwestern Pennsylvania when I was growing up. We lived about a half a mile away—a quarter of a mile on the main road and then another quarter down a little paved path past the junior high athletic field, the junior high proper, and across a huge asphalt expanse that bridged the gap between the junior high parking lot and the paved play surface of the elementary school. It took most kids about ten minutes to make the whole trip. I took about half an hour.
I was never a fast walker, and I meandered home at a rate only a turtle would admire. On this particular misty-rainy afternoon--the kind of afternoon the Pittsburgh area is known for--I was daydreaming while I walked, meaning that it took me about half an hour to get over to the junior high’s athletic field. Cold and anticipating a thorough telling off from my mother, I decided to cut across the real grass field instead of walking around it. I paid nary a thought to my new penny loafers with their shiny copper discs in them. Of course, I started to think about them a little more when I was about a third of the way in, and it was getting harder and harder to pull them out of the muck. But I was already in this far, and I wasn’t going back. By halfway, I had lost one shoe and couldn’t lift either foot out of the mud. I would have licked my salty tears from the corners of my mouth, but it was raining so hard there was no salt left.
I was imagining spending the night there when he came out of the side door of the junior high. Someone from the inside was yelling after him, and he ducked his head in defeat as he tripped down the small embankment between the school building and the field. He had nothing to be too happy about. He was headed out of detention.
He was about a quarter of the way toward the other side of the hill when he noticed me in the field.
“Are you okay?” he called.
Hiccuping too much to talk, I just shook my head.
“Are you stuck?” he guessed.
I hung my head in shame.
But he never looked disappointed or said a word. He just took his hands out of his pockets and walked across the field to get me. I noticed that his feet never seemed to stick in the mud and that his shoes had ties. I remembered what my gym teacher had said about loafers. I didn’t run better in tennis shoes, but athletic fields did seem to like them better. By the time I had finished thinking, the boy had made it to me.
“Hold on,” he instructed, scooping me up easily. He carried me across the field and set me on the track.
“I lost my shoe,” I told him.
Without a word, he walked back, circled the mud a bit, and then bent over to pry a little loafer out of the muck. Coming back to the side, he set it on the track beside me and I slid my foot in. I noticed that he didn’t even have mud on his hands.
“Are you okay?” he asked me again.
Wiping my nose with the back of my hand, I nodded. He turned away from and headed toward the hill to the other housed street. His head was held high as he looked back and cast me a final wave.
I never said thank you, but I never forgot.
He was more than a kid coming out of detention.
He was my hero.