Fixing the playground

swings-111925_1920Do you remember Jeffrey Dahmer? It’s hard to even write his name – the serial killer of seventeen. We lived in Wisconsin in the early ’90s when he was apprehended, where no one could escape the flood of gruesome details and commentaries.

Not long after he was caught, I student taught in a fifth grade classroom. One of the young boys in my class was the quiet and shy type, somewhat awkward in most social situations. A mediocre student at best. And to my horror, because of his rather gaunt face and love of guns, he earned the nickname “Little Dahmer.”

Even more unsettling was that he didn’t seem to mind at all. Good golly, Miss Molly.

But that’s not why I remember David and picture him clearly.

He was certainly an odd little boy. That horrid nick-name aside, he seemed detached from school and had no interest in succeeding. He always completed his work, but his ability to shine academically seemed only a remote possibility at best. I saw him as the student who graduates by the seat of his pants and the gift of a D+ from the English teacher.

We were studying the history of the colonies and how they gained independence.

As an aspiring teacher, eager to “make a difference” in the lives of my students, I wanted to introduce the break with England differently. I wanted my students to be more interactive. I wanted them to feel the desire for freedom from an oppressive monarchy.

So, I asked my cooperating teacher to come in after lunch, interrupt the start of social studies with the following “official note from the office” (that I had written).

All Fourth and Fifth Grade Students:
The primary playground is in need of repairs and the mulch must be removed and replaced with shredded rubber. Until repairs are completed, the primary students will be playing on the intermediate playground during their recess times.
If primary students are on the playground, intermediate students must stay off of the equipment and bring items, such as balls and jump ropes, to use on the blacktop or in the open fields.
In addition, to pay for this work, all students will be required to pay an additional $.10 for each carton of milk for the remainder of this year and until Christmas break next year.
Finally, after the repairs have been made, intermediate students will not be permitted to play on the primary playground before, during, or after school hours.
If you have questions, please talk to the Principal.

When she finished, my students looked confused – as I expected. Some of them began to understand the implications of paying for something they were forbidden to use. As they began to protest, I quietly encouraged discussion.

It wasn’t long before they had plans to picket and write letters. They mentioned the power of a sit-in. It got as far as vandalizing the primary playground before I could reel them in and fess up. “I made it all up! It’s not really happening. No, you won’t have to pay more for milk. I made it all up!” Some of them didn’t want to give up and continued to protest and plan.

But, moving on, I nonchalantly said, OK, time to get busy. Take out your social studies book. 

As we reviewed what we had learned about the days leading up to the Boston Tea Party, I surveyed the class.

David had an odd smile on his face as he looked around at his classmates. Not odd like Jeffrey Dahmer… odd like Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

I watched him search the faces of the “smart kids.” I saw his expression travel through understanding, uncertainty, and then pride. In just a few moments of time, he made the connection between my prank and real life. And then, seeing no confirmation from others, he questioned himself, not all that sure he got it right.

But it didn’t take long. That confident smile came back. He knew he was the very first to get it. The very first, probably for the first time.

Mousy little David. The only thing I knew about him was he knew a lot about hunting and guns. And he didn’t mind being associated with a man that horrified us. I didn’t hold out much hope for his future, based on what I observed day to day.

Not until that day, anyway. Not until the day I saw pride and confidence in his face – and realized he was the only one who got it.

I hope I never forget David and what he taught me about hope for the future. I hope I see all of the Davids of the world as smart and a little sassy or savvy in their own way – not the mousy way they look or dress or the grades they bring home.

I don’t always succeed. Too often I see people only through the tiniest peephole and then create their profile and resume based on a small, blurry snapshot.

In a world where the price tags have been switched, we are often quick to form ugly opinions about those we consider bullies and those for which greed is considered a badge of honor. Sometimes we aren’t wrong.

But, my lovelies, right or wrong, before we classify anyone as “Needs Improvement,” we should run how we evaluate the behavior of others through the filter of Jesus’ love.

Yes, it is difficult to hear vulgar words and name calling and not turn away in disgust or dismiss that person as undeserving of respect or recognition. It is difficult to watch money being spent on furniture, boats and jets, and parades while the poor languish for lack of simple necessities. It is next to impossible to not shake our fists and yell our heads off when inequity is glamorized by the “haves.”

To Jesus, however, we are all little Davids. Misnamed by the world, but full of hope for the future.  Children of the King and every single one of us loved by Him without measure.

I often wonder what happened to David. Does he still live in a small rural town? Is he living a good life, with a family, working at the job he wants, surrounded by people who know and love him and call him Dave or Pop or Daddy? Does he still get it when others may not?

Does he realize what he taught me?

I’ll probably never know. But I sure hope so.


Before we classify anyone as “Needs Improvement,” we should run how we evaluate the behavior of others through the filter of Jesus’ love. Click to Tweet


  1. I had many little Davids in my teaching career. I believe their lives were touched by me and God’s grace. Thank you for reminding about them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s