It was my last mission in Iraq- a quick trip down to the local elementary school to drop off some supplies and to check on the new playground that a contracted Iraqi iron worker had installed. As we arrived at the school, one class was very busy at recess; excitement and screams filled the air, eager bodies waited on the slide’s steps, and the big kids hogged the swings. I could have been on any playground in the world.
I remember with particular fondness my early days spent romping around the playground at St. Malachy’s grade school in Geneseo, Illinois. Recess was a twice daily adventure into the heroic imaginary, leaping off the monkey bars into the dusty pebbles, a chipped tooth the mark of a young Indiana Jones. The playground supervisor was a prison guard whose watchful eye we dutifully evaded, and the swings were rockets launching brave men into the stratosphere to explore far-off planets.
The playgrounds allowed us to dream of who we might become and to hope for a beautiful, exciting world that we knew nothing about. As I entered the school building in Iraq, I ventured with my interpreter to a kindergarten classroom full of students. I introduced myself and asked the children some relatively simple questions.
“Where is your house?” I asked. “How old are you?” The children excitedly shouted their own individual answers.
“OK,” I said. “Now, who knows why the Americans came to Iraq?”
The six-year olds fell silent as they seemingly searched their small wooden desk tops for the answer. Finally, one boy raised his hand and, with his eyes glowing, he said, “To play with us?” My heart immediately shattered under the weight of his heart-honest wisdom.
That Iraqi boy taught me something that day. I absolutely believe that childhood innocence- the fragile, undisturbed confidence that all is right with the world- is worth fighting to preserve. The seven months I sacrificed away from my family immediately found meaning in a young child’s hopeful outlook towards the world. Perhaps my sacrifices helped preserve, at least for a short while longer, his ability to see a world unaffected by violence and fear.
When I returned home to Illinois, I visited my Godson’s kindergarten class at my old school. I wanted to show them a picture or two from a foreign country and to thank them for their fervent prayers for my safety. As I looked around, in all of those six-year old eyes, I saw a familiar glow. I didn’t even have to ask them. They too were certain about why I had really come to their classroom that day: to play with them.
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