“When someone needs you, you help,” I tell our son, Stefan. It is important to me to set a good example, but one day something happened that shook my faith.
“Look, Mom! Quick! Look!” Stefan’s urgent shouts reached me just as my head was submerged inside a paper sack, while my hands were bearing down on hundreds of dead leaves.
I popped my head out of the dusty confinement. “What’s the matter?”
“Over there! Look!” Stefan shouted again, pointing his finger toward the fence that cuts through the grass behind our U.S. military housing in Germany. A local girl sat on the dirt road beyond the fence, not more than ten yards away from us. Her sobs pierced the air.
As I rushed closer, I saw the blood oozing from her knees, running in narrow streams down her shinbones to be soaked up by the brim of her white socks. My mind started racing. Hope she didn’t break anything. First-aid kit’s in the kitchen. We’ll have to squeeze large bandages through the fence.
“Are you ok?” Stefan called out instinctively in English and quickly ran past me, right up to the fence. Her crying stopped immediately. In a flash, her eyes darted back and forth, trying to assess the situation, wondering if we could be trusted, not comprehending, perhaps, that the six-foot high and miles-long meshed fence prevented us from getting too close to her.
Before I could say anything, she jumped up and sped away like a deer from the wolves.
“Why’d she run away?” Stefan threw up his arms and expressed what I thought. “We just wanted to help!” His eyebrows went up. “You always say to help others.”
“Yes, I know.” I patted him on the back. “We do need to help when we can. The girl just ran away because she doesn’t know us. We’re strangers to her.”
“So you think she was afraid of us?” Stefan made a grimace. “That’s silly.”
I forced my attention toward raking leaves again, and yet the image of the little girl running away from us nagged on my conscience.
What a fool I had made of myself trying to set a good example. Perhaps the girl would have reacted differently if we had not come from behind the fence, a fence that intimidates with sharply pointed pinnacles and barbed wire that creeps along the upper crest.
“Can I play soccer?” Stefan said, interrupting my thoughts. “I’m tired of raking!”
I could not blame him. The trees, I noticed with a sigh, let their abundant leaves fall, unhindered and undiscriminating on both sides of the fence.
“Don’t kick the ball over the fence!” I warned him. “Otherwise, it’ll be gone!” Now, that statement was not completely true. If the ball did land on the opposite side of the fence, we could still get it. All we would have to do is fetch my military identification card, exit the housing area through the checkpoint, go past the armed guards, take a right down the street to walk along a dirt road, beyond the horse pastures, until we reached the backside of our house to pick up the ball. Though we would be less than twenty feet away from my cup of coffee sitting at the kitchen counter, we would have to turn around and follow the fence all the way back again to go through the checkpoint and to our house. In short, I would get good exercise from walking if not from raking.
“Can you play soccer with me?” Stefan asked.
“No, honey!” I snapped, as I watched another army of leaves from the other side parachuting into our yard. “I’ve still got the front to rake.”
It was not until later that I heard laughter in my backyard. I rounded the corner of the house, only to catch my son disobeying me.
The ball flew over the fence, barely scratching the barbed wire, and landed in the ditch. Stefan was ecstatic. “I did it! I did it!” He jumped up and down with pleasure. “I knew I could do it!”
Yes, it had been a great shot, but now the ball was beyond our reach. I was just about to scold him when I stopped in my tracks. A boy, taller than Stefan, ran into the ditch, picked up the ball, tossed it into the air and kicked it. The ball went up straight and came down, landing again in the ditch.
“Try again!” Stefan cheered him on, clapping his hands with excitement while I watched from the distance, unsure whether to speak or move. I could scare the boy off, I knew, making him run through the woods like a startled deer.
This time, the boy walked closer to the fence to try his volley kick. Again he failed. Without getting discouraged he tried over and over, throwing and kicking, but the fence was too high. I was just about to tell Stefan that we would walk the distance to fetch his ball, when it happened. The ball came over the fence, safely landing on our side.
“Yeah!” An outburst of pure joy erupted simultaneously on both sides. The boys were screaming with delight, jumping and dancing to celebrate their victory over the barrier.
I could not help laughing. “Good job!” I shouted in German. Both boys paused and looked in astonishment in my direction, realizing only then that I had witnessed the scene.
At that moment, a male voice called out, “Thomas!”
“Ich komme.” Thomas shouted back with a shrug of his shoulders. He turned and hurried down the path toward the horse pastures.
“Tschuess.” Stefan shouted good-bye in German, waving his hands in the air.
Thomas turned around. A big smile lit up his face. “Tschuess,” he called out and waved his hands.
“I have a new friend!” Stefan exclaimed, running toward me with his cheeks glowing.
“Yes,” I said slowly and smiled.
The task of teaching our son to help others is not complete. In my eagerness to teach Stefan to be helpful I had left out teaching him that sometimes help is not appreciated or misconstrued, just as the little girl mistook our enthusiasm to help as a threat. I wanted to look like a hero and ended up looking like a fool. Still, in retrospect I’d rather have Stefan try to help and be rejected than have him ignore someone in need. It is this selflessness, this willingness to help one another out of kindness that I am hoping he will learn. On that same afternoon I could not have hoped for a better teacher than Thomas. He came along not knowing that another boy living on the other side of the fence was questioning his mom’s ideals of helpfulness. Thomas had the option to ignore Stefan. Instead, he chose to help and kick the ball across the barrier. It took a soccer ball to teach our son that being the giver and the recipient of help can be a great joy.
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