This story was originally presented as part of a 6-Minute Memoir event on the theme of “Turning Point,” held last February on Zoom. Described as “speed storytelling for a cause,” the live events feature a dozen presenters sharing personal experiences in six minutes or less, with all proceeds going to charity.
He resembled a disgruntled Peter Pan with arms akimbo and feet confidently planted on the forest floor. This was a real 10-year-old boy with a spirit hewn of abusiveness, anger and shame. He existed in vulnerability, but in this moment, he held the power. I knew of his bullying ways; all the children did.
I happened upon him as I ran and played along a forest trail only blocks from my suburban Vancouver home. I stopped abruptly, only a few metres away from this boy I call Pan.
From behind him stepped two of his own Lost Boys. They flanked his bony elbows, creating a menacing trio. My idyllic summer romp through the woods was taking an ugly turn.
As a youngster, I loved exploring this green woodlot. Towering Douglas firs offered a lacy canopy perfect for my antics. I was either engaged in a breathless game of pursuit with friends, or alone, revelling in wondrous free movement. Forest bathing before it was a thing.
On summer mornings of my 10th year, I tied the frayed laces of my beloved white high-top sneakers and headed to this enchanted parkland. I sprinted across narrow paths, vaulted over decaying logs and hurdled ribbon-like watercourses. Spongy ground cover offered perfect comfort for any awkward landings. Parkour before I knew what it was.
I felt invincible and invisible. This place held me. It sheltered me from a sometimes confusing and scary world. A world bigger than I could possibly imagine. A slurry of names and places announced on the six o’clock CBC news that my parents religiously watched: Kennedy, Cuba, Lester Pearson, Vietnam and Dr. King.
I was grappling with this reality on top of everyday concerns about fitting in, my changing body, school and the guilt that came with being a less-than-perfect Catholic kid. But here, in this magical place, I’d never been afraid — until today.
“What are you doing here?” Pan’s voice was calm, understated, sinister.
“I…I…I’m just playing.”
“Ya, but why are you here?” How had he learned to instil terror in another human in this way?
The boys were blocking the path that was my only escape route. I was trapped. I could turn around and run, but they might overpower me.
As Pan took a move toward me, his quaking prey, he inadvertently stepped in a leaf-covered hole filled with water. The soaker made him angry. His Lost Boys were visibly amused. This added to his shame. “See what you made me do, stupid?”
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I was a shy kid. My MO was to lie low and observe. I avoided the spotlight and believed that I could sidestep most embarrassment, most danger and even bullying by remaining unseen. I became adept at shrinking. But I also craved friendships, and despite my conflicted self, I did make good friends.
Pan and I both wanted acceptance. Pan used intimidation while I chose invisibility. But on this day, I couldn’t hide.
Pan crouched on one knee to untie his shoelace and remove his sock. He slowly raised his head and glared. “Kiss my foot.” Before I could respond, he repeated it as if it were a royal command: “I said, kiss my foot.” Preparing me for further humiliation, he dramatically rolled up his pant leg.
Then, at that moment, something clicked, and I thought, “This is not going to happen!” I took a knee, mirroring Pan. Focused on my high-tops, I slowly patted the sides of each shoe. These runners would not fail me.
I lifted my head and then darted toward the boys, screaming as loudly as I could. I was boldly addressing fear on my own terms. I was not going to submit.
Within a metre of the boys, I dove to their right into the brush, then scrambled back onto the path. I ran at full throttle, not daring to look back. I felt frightened and brave. They hurled insults and shouted threats. “Hey coward! Next time I’m really gonna hurt you.” I headed toward a clearing and then breathlessly returned to the safety of my neighbourhood.
I replayed the episode countless times and concluded that I was able to collect myself, stare down my fears and intentionally run right toward them. I was fearless.
That day marked a turning point of sorts. I found my voice, and I found my courage. And it was empowering.
Bob Ryan is a father, retired teacher and yoga instructor in Mississauga, Ont. He blogs about all things movement at chaptersofmovement.com.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Forest faceoff.”
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