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He waves. It’s a friendly little gesture, almost a two finger salute to an old friend. He’s watching you through your window.
The Boy has fine, burnt umber hair that shines like silk in the midmorning sun. It’s almost a shame to see it in the unisex, unflattering buzz cut of the OldGens. He is obviously one of them; the OldGens. No self-respecting NewGen would be caught dead in this kind of state – muddy face, torn knees, his empty collection sack over his shoulder. It is the NewGens who are expected to keep themselves neat and orderly. They are the only ones for whom it is worthwhile doing so.
As a NewGen child, you have been raised to behave exactly as your parents tell you. And your parents behave the way the GenWatch tells them. But in all your years, the one thing they have not been able to straighten out of you is your curiosity. So you stand up. You leave your desk exactly the way it’s not meant to be – covered with unfinished homework – and you glide over to the window. Gliding. It’s the only way to describe how you move. Graceful, none of that awkward stumbling the OldGens do.
The Boy smiles lopsidedly. You realize he’s missing two teeth in his upper jaw. Fighting, you suppose. OldGens do it all the time.
“Would you like to come and play?
You are taken aback.
The Boy snorts. He holds his hands in front of his chest and mimes throwing a ball. “Play. Do you want to?”
Strange indeed. This is the first time you have ever been spoken to in such a way by an OldGen. You are used to OldGens stepping aside in the street for your passing; giving you their place in line; general fealty.
The word is foreign to you. You assume from his actions that the Boy means physical activity of some kind. Physical activity is not usually considered important for NewGens. But of course, it was necessary to know the rules of FieldBall, the national sport.
The Boy shakes his head in wonderment. “How do they raise you people? C’mon, just one game won’t hurt. I’ll teach you.”
He beckons temptingly.
You weigh the risks. It is quiet. Your parents are out at the FieldBall game, compulsory attendance for all those over 18, and they will not be back until EighteenO’clock. You, on the other hand, are home alone, apart from your nanny, who has conveniently fallen asleep in an armchair in the living room.
If you are caught, you will be severely dealt with. Both for sneaking out, and for failing to report an OldGen in the NewHome.
But you are you, and as such, you decide to disregard such unnecessary thoughts. So you reach for your shoes, open the window, fling one leg over the ledge and slide out the space. You land solidly in a crouch, the grass crunching under your light canvas sneakers. You stand tall, your eyes quickly adjusting to the bright sunlight.
The Boy beams excitedly. “Let’s go!” He grabs your wrist roughly, and before you can force him off, you are dragged off your sturdy feet and along the straight path out of the NewHome. Your standard-issue, washed out cube of a home is hidden behind the orderly row of meticulously groomed pines, designed to shield the NewHome from the prying eyes of OldGens. Apparently it doesn’t dissuade all.
The Boy leads you along a well-worn dirt path, down the hill on which the NewHome sits. The OldHome comes into view. You attempt to drink in every little detail of the sight – you are hardly ever permitted to see it in real life.
The 3D textbook simulations you study at school do not do the OldHome justice. You are amazed at the sheer scale of it all; tall, metallic skyscrapers, swaying precariously against the sky, multi-storey apartment blocks made of chipping concrete and colorful laundry hanging from the windows. Tangled black roads, the vehicles gnawing at them shiny and sleek. Everything appears to be rotting, decaying. Even the people you see are worn down like the sole of a well-loved shoe.
The sky is a dull grey, so unlike the cornflower blue you are spoiled with at the NewHome. You begin to choke on the thickness that lines your throat and lungs. It feels disgusting. Sensing your discomfort, the Boy stops. You pant and cough, dropping helplessly to your knees. The Boy’s eyes grow round.
You gesture weakly at the atmosphere hanging over the OldHome, begging the Boy to understand.
For a moment, blankness. Then the metaphorical light bulb. “Oh.”
Pausing for no more than a moment to consider, he jerks you up again and turns right, traveling parallel to the city. Seeing all the buildings slide by, you wonder if they will ever end. Your breathing gets more rushed and panicked.
And then you are freed. The last dregs of concrete fade, and you are standing in a large plateau. There is no greenery to speak of, save for a carpet brittle brown grass. With the OldHome at your back, the horizon is bleak. The air here is better. Not what you are used to, but you can breathe. The Boy waits for you to recover, a self-satisfaction radiating from every pore of his hands-on-hips form. Then he raises two fingers to his lips and emits a knife-sharp whistle that stabs your ears.
Before you can react, several silhouettes materialize from nowhere. More kids your own age. They are every bit as rugged as the Boy; the majority gawky-looking boys, with the occasional pig-tailed girl mixed in. One boy, wearing a stained yellow polo shirt wrinkles his nose at you.
“Hey, who’s this guy?”
The Boy crosses his arms. “None ‘o your business. He’s here to play. We’re here to play. So let’s play.”
Apparently satisfied, the two exchange solemn nods. The Questioning Boy starts hollering instructions.
“Oi, you three over here; play defense! You lot play offense. Got it? Let’s go!”
Abruptly, everyone begins running in all directions. Someone produces a battered melon-sized ball, and kicks it to the center of the throng. You just sit and watch as feet, fists, and angry words fly like birds in the chaos. Except it isn’t chaos.
As you follow the mass of bodies across the field, you begin to decipher order. Suddenly, you smile. Of course. It’s FieldBall. Only, in a way you’ve never seen it before. With no marked boundaries, no solid goals, and no even teams, the group of kids before you are making the most of what they have to enjoy themselves. You are strangely thrilled. Before you truly know what you’re doing, you are on your feet and chasing the ball until it spins vaguely in your direction. Catching it on one ankle, the way you were taught, you bounce the ball to your other foot and aim a kick to the Questioning Boy. He raises his eyebrows briefly, before smiling crookedly in acceptance and yelling;
You feel a sense of satisfaction that is thoroughly new, and immensely pleasurable.
Before you know it, you are one of them. Jogging, kicking, laughing. Playing rough when necessary; always stopping to help a fallen friend. It is uncomplicated, simple F-U-N.
You let loose in a way your parents would be horrified to see. You don’t hesitate at all to get right into it. Your crashes to the ground are bruising and painful, but you hiccup with giggles as you are heaved straight back up again. The few girls exceed all expectations to hold their own against the violent boys, dishing it out as well as they get.
Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end, and your shadow lengthens to the point that you can no longer ignore it. Stopping the ball under your sneaker, you shake your head as your team runs to receive it. The Boy sighs.
“Done, are you?”
You incline your head reluctantly.
He sighs again, before turning to the group. “We’re going now. See ‘ya later.”
The group replies vigorously. Some boys come up to you, beaming, and pump your arm in a grown-up shake. “Come again, eh?”
The girls punch you on the arm and tell you; “You’re not bad for one of them NewGens!”
You are gratified by their compliments.
As you limp, tired and muddy, back the way you came, you wave to them, your dirty face pink in a grin of your own. You decide you will never forget this moment: the scarlet sun staining your vision, the larger-than-life shadows on the dead grass, the friendships forged in the heat of battle. You are one of them, just for today.
You and the Boy hike back up the hill without speaking. You contemplate the afternoon. You realize just how effortless friendships are formed out here, in comparison to the forced ‘companionship’ of the NewHome. When you are surrounded by so much ‘order’, ‘fun’ is hard to find.
As the pine wall enters your vision, you sense a change in the atmosphere. You feel a sense of foreboding. You grasp the Boy’s arm and open your mouth to explain.
Then you gasp as your frenzied parents burst through the trees and begin running towards you. Their white, classic uniforms are spotless, even after the relative rowdiness of the FieldBall game. Their hair is neat and tidy, barely a hair dislodged for their haste. Their faces, usually so composed, show little trace of it now. Despite the conditions, they are attached to you.
They stop dead upon noticing your companion. You flinch. Since the day they were born, the simple fact was: NewGens are not OldGens. NewGens are better than OldGens. OldGens are to be avoided. But here you are, disobeying the doctrine of your life to willingly spend time with such an inferior being. You snuck out. Now you must pay.
Your parents quickly step forward with stiffly deadpan faces. Shooting undeserved, callous insults in impassive voices, they snatch your shoulder and pull you away. Your mother shields you with her body. Your father, on impulse, raises his palm and brings it down with excessive force on the Boy’s face. The crack echoes and you cry out. The Boy thuds to the ground.
Tears streaming down your face, you beg them to listen; imploring their emotionless faces to care. It’s not his fault – it’s mine!
But the Boy is silent.
He says nothing.
He does nothing to defend himself.
He just takes it, staring at your father’s contorted face
Then he slowly stands up, still meeting your father’s eye.
He falls quiet and still. Your mother swallows sharply, her jaw muscles tensed.
The Boy dusts himself off, and turns around. He slowly walks away.
You watch, tears making tracks in the dirt on your face.
The three of you stand in a tableau of incomprehension and shock.
Then, just before your parents decide enough is enough and drag you back home for punishment, you see the Boy look back.
He smiles sadly. And waves.
A two finger salute to an old friend.