A crowd of gangly pre-teens and tired looking parents watch as a boy—maybe 11 or 12—tries to coax himself onto a platform containing a trapdoor that is to drop him seven stories down the water park’s fastest tube. Ten long seconds pass as he stares at the ride’s entrance. Time feels frozen. People start to call out encouragement like, “Charge it bro!” and “Just do it!” He takes a tentative step onto the launch area and is rewarded with cheers from the crowd. An older woman who appears to be his mother says, “You got this Riley.” Riley’s trembling body, however, tells a different story and when he looks up at the crowd, his eyes are frantic. A cornered rabbit. Even my eight-year old son notices this and says, “That boy looks really scared.” I nod, fascinated by the spectacle, but also anxious for the boy. A bit overweight and already beginning his journey into acne, I suspect that Riley could use a win here.
After an agonizingly long moment and fueled by the crowd’s encouragement, Riley finally manages a second shaky step onto the platform. The crowd cheers louder. A strained smile forces its way onto his face and his eyes take on a new measure of courage. I think to myself, “He’s actually gonna do it. Good for him. He’ll be happy he did.”
The only slightly-older teen operating the slide steps over to the platform and, as he begins to shut the clear plastic lid enshrouding the launch zone, says his rehearsed line: “Keep your legs straight and cross your arms over your chest.” Riley, seemingly by reflex more than thought, suddenly thrusts an arm forward and blocks the lid from being shut. The attendant pauses dumfounded. Maybe this wasn’t in the training video he’d been forced to watch.
Riley, in an effort to flee the launch zone, nearly trips and only barely keeps from slamming into several gawking girls. The crowd’s cheering transforms into jeers and laughter, the good-natured support abandoned at the sight of perceived weakness. A group of boys a couple years younger than Riley laugh the loudest. One calls out, “Hey, how old are you anyway?”
Riley, with a look of anguish on his face, rushes past them without responding and starts pushing his way through the crowd back down the seven flights of stairs. In a few seconds, he’s gone. His mom, who is next in line, steps onto the platform, but she seems oblivious to the attendant and upcoming ride. Her troubled eyes continue to scan the top of the stairs where her son disappeared. Moments later, a buzzer signals the launch and the hatch opens. In an instant, she’s gone.
As my son and I wait our turn, I wonder if I just witnessed one of those childhood events that sticks with a person—a rotten piece of meat spinning on a psychological rotisserie for decades to come. I wonder if Riley will lie awake at night, body tense, envisioning himself actually getting on the ride. Or, punching the little kid who’d mocked him. I think about my own iterations of childhood shame and pray that it won’t take Riley decades of mental health work to feel okay. That, perhaps, he’s a resilient kid who can genuinely let the experience go and build something strong from it.
I wonder if there’s some kind of lesson to be had in this moment of defeat. The moral of the story. I’d wanted it to end differently, for the scared boy to have braved the ride to the sound of a crowd chanting their support for his moment of victory. The stuff of Disney movies. I wanted to feel better about humanity. Instead, I feel hollow. Gray.
And, twenty-four hours later, as I write this story, I still wonder what the lesson is—or even why I feel compelled to share the experience. Though I doubt he’ll ever read this account, perhaps I write it because I want Riley to know that I witnessed what happened. That I understand how awful shame feels. That he’s not alone.