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Racing Against Max

by Margaret Cullison

It was early spring of my sixth grade year. Water puddles covered the lower end of the playground, and temperatures were cold enough that the water froze over at night. We still wore our winter coats to school, and some of us wore galoshes. Those black rubber overshoes were ugly beyond words, but they fastened tightly to mid-calf, protecting us from snow and rain. When spring began to show, however, we wouldn't bother to connect the metal fasteners, letting the pleated fabric flop open and the fasteners jingle as we walked and ran at recess. We thought the boots looked better this way.

The upper elementary grades in my school had just begun practicing for the annual track meet in May. We competed against our respective grades from the only other grade school in the small Iowa town where I grew up. We'd already run a series of races in physical education class to determine who were the fastest girl and boy runners in each grade. Later the best runners would be selected to compete in the 50 and 100-yard dashes and to be part of the relay teams. The fever of competition burned in those who were among the best. In a recent trial, I had proved myself to be the fastest sixth-grade girl.

My counterpart was a boy named Max. Having been held back several times during the course of his grade school career, Max was a good two years older than the other sixth graders. He was also bigger and perhaps more cunning than any other child on the playground. Max knew a far less comfortable family life than most of us enjoyed. His unfortunate school record and home life had made him an outsider. The girls were all a little afraid of him. Now Max had achieved the fortunate distinction of being the fastest sixth grade boy.

But Max yearned for more acclaim. At morning recess, he challenged me to a race. He said the race would decide who was the fastest sixth grader. I agreed without realizing the advantage of age and strength that Max had over me. The sky was overcast and threatened rain that day. I was more interested in huddling in conversation with my girlfriends.

Word had spread that an exciting race was about to be run, no doubt fueled by Max's certainty that he'd be the winner. Soon we were standing side by side at a designated line under the leafless branches of the only tree on the playground. Our classmates gathered along the course of the 50-yard distance we were about to run. Ever since I was a little girl I'd been good at short bursts of speed, a trait my mother told me we had in common. So I had my own kind of confidence as I began the race.

I remember the cold wind in my ears as I dashed forward, my mind focused on the thrill of running as fast as I could. Max might just as well have not been there for I gave no thought to him. Quickly the race was over, and I had won. The crowd broke up, we finished our recess time doing the usual things, and no one seemed to care much about the outcome of the race.

Max cared more than he probably should have. The next day he came up to me at recess and asked for another race. "I forgot to take off my galoshes. They kinda slowed me down," he explained, looking down at his unfastened overshoes. "I know I can run faster than you."

I was an innocent eleven-year-old who had lived a protected life and didn't know about the harsher world that Max had surely experienced. I did know that my race had been won fairly, so I didn't give him another chance. Only later did I understand that his galoshes had evened the odds between us.

©Margaret Cullison for SeniorWomenWeb

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