Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hurtling Through Space

It was just a day at Darien Lake, an upstate New York amusement park.

My daughter, her friend, and I were standing in the usual long, snaking line to ride the park's roller coaster, called the Viper. It was our first ride of the day, and we like roller coasters, both wood and steel.

In line with us was a group of teenage African-American girls. They were passing the long wait by joking and laughing and just having a good time. In their care was a little girl, about nine years old, just barely tall enough to reach the magic mark of amusement park adulthood that earns access to the Viper.

When we reached the final point-of-no-return before launching, I noticed that the little girl was an odd number in her group, and therefore, without someone with whom to ride.

I hesitated. After all, I was a stranger and a white man. On the other hand, I was with my own kid and her friend, so, I would probably be considered "safe."

I didn't have a fellow rider, either. The older girls suddenly noticed their predicament and were talking about what to do -- where would the little girl ride? I finally mustered the nerve to speak up.

"She can ride with me, if she wants." They asked her. "OK." They had her get in the chute next to mine.

I let her in the car first and pulled down the safety bar. The coaster started up. Then the little girl turned and looked up at me.

"Would you hold my hand?" Shocked inside, I just replied, "Sure."

She put her little hand inside mine, and we climbed the first hill. When we started down, she squeezed my hand for all she was worth, closed her eyes so tightly that they were barely visible slits, and cried as intensely as she possibly could.

We were hurtling out into time and space and the universe together, just the two of us, this little African-American girl and this white Anglo stranger.

I had been there before, but this was new and frightening for her, and she trusted me for her safety and comfort.

Everytime we reached a level area, her eyes opened and she relaxed her grip -- a little. She never let go completely. But whenever we went into a dip or turn, she bore down, and the tears fell again.

At the end of the ride, I think that she was proud of herself. I told her older friends that they should buy her a special "I survived the Viper" button. They smiled and left for other rides.

As our groups turned to go their separate ways, I thought about the little children who had been hurt by adults over the decades and the centuries. I thought about the responsibility that we adults have toward them. I thought about the tremendous privilege inherent in that responsibility.

And I thought about trust. This little girl had not bothered to see a stereotype, what I might appear to be on the outside. She just knew that she needed someone to trust. In just a few moments she had given me the best lesson I have ever had in trust, both how to trust others and how to respect, value, appreciate, and enjoy the trust given by another person.

Years later, I can still feel that little hand inside mine. Thank you, little girl -- I wish I had asked your name.

As human beings on this planet, we are thrown together into many situations and roller coaster rides. We hurtle through space at thousands of miles an hour.

The single most important aspect of our ride is how we treat those in the car with us.

- By Vance Agee

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