This newsletter is the latest in a series of guest posts from Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and was originally published on the main Library of Congress blog.
I think I was 4. Maybe 5. My older brother, Allen, and I were playing in the living room, which, by the way, wasn’t usually allowed in my house. I mean, playing was fine, but in the living room? Never. I don’t remember for sure, but my mother must have been asleep, because if she weren’t, this moment I’m about to describe wouldn’t have ever happened.
Allen was the kind of kid who didn’t like much. Playing sports wasn’t really his thing, nor was school. As a matter of fact, when we were growing up, I only recall him actually being passionate about two things—superheroes and animals. And not just any superheroes, but superheroes who could fly. And not just any animals. Birds. But not just any birds, extinct birds with legendary wingspans. Sky-darkening creatures, both marvelous and nightmarish. Which means flying was always on Allen’s mind.
“J, if you stand on the arm of the sofa, close your eyes real tight and jump; I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to fly.” That’s all he had to say. No spells cast. No backstory about a boy he’d heard about who took flight from a living room sofa. Nothing. Just, “J, close your eyes and jump.” That’s it.
I should mention, Allen was my hero. I looked up to him because he always seemed to know things, or at least he always acted like he did. So when he told me I could fly, I believed him and jumped at the chance. I climbed up on the arm of the sofa, feet together, toes on the edge like a gymnast on a balance beam preparing for the big dismount. I turned myself into a “T,” held my arms out, closed my eyes. Then took a deep breath, and dove.
When you’re 4 (or maybe 5) and believe the air will carry you, you don’t think about things like the coffee table positioned in front of the sofa, the cherry wood my mother thought complemented the navy fabric perfectly. You don’t think about becoming a plummeting rocket, slamming into the corner of that table and exploding into a million tears. You don’t think about anything but flying. And after gravity reintroduces you to the floor, all you think about, then, is why your brother would ever tell you such a thing in the first place.
When my mother found me, my face was bleeding. She rushed me to the hospital and after a few hours my chin had been stitched closed. A week later, I was left with a diagonal scar that slashed across the bottom of my face, which had become a patchwork of bruised skin. Every morning I looked at it as a jagged symbol of failure. A reminder that my arms weren’t wings, and that I, in fact, had no superpowers.
The bad news (besides the obvious) is that my brother wouldn’t even apologize. Because he’s a big brother. “I didn’t make him do it” became his favorite song.
The good news is the scar seemed to get smaller as my face got bigger. As I grew up, this dash of skin became more like a hyphen. The remainder of the reminder, harder and harder to see.
Five years later, my father decided to drive Allen and me out to a small airfield 20 minutes from our neighborhood to finally make our dreams of flying come true. The plan was to take us up in a small propeller plane and fly us around for a few minutes, then bring us down. But when we arrived at the hangars, Allen started to mouse.
“I can’t go up,” he said.
“What you mean, man? We gon’ fly,” my father said.
“Yeah, we gon’ fly!” I followed up. But Allen refused. All he ever talked about was flying and now he was purposely avoiding it. Sweating and sinking into his seat, refusing it. So I went up without him. Looked from the window, watching my father’s old Volkswagen become a dot. Watched my brother, a spectator, become a speck. Watched the world become a possibility. And when the wheels returned to the ground and the plane skidded to a stop, I knew my life would never be the same. Nor would the meaning of this bit of scar tissue on my chin. Because my brother, my hero, wanted to know all about my time in the sky.
“Could you see me?” he asked.
“What did the clouds look like?” he asked.
“Could you feel the wind?” he asked, his voice full of the same fire burning in my adrenaline-filled body.
And in that moment (he kept asking questions the whole ride home) I realized that maybe my brother told me to jump off the couch and fly not because he knew I couldn’t, but because he didn’t think he could. And maybe he knew that I’d at least try, simply because he told me to. Simply because he was my hero. And maybe he even knew—because of all his comic book knowledge—that sometimes heroes can’t save themselves, and the best thing to do is to try to create new ones from their sidekicks to help. And maybe that was his superpower. Maybe. Either way, I’ve never looked at scars the same. And sofas are for sitting, for some. But for me … well … it depends on if my mother’s asleep.
Oh, and, Allen, if you’re reading this, I accept your apology. And also, you were right. You didn’t make me, but … you kinda did. And I’m grateful for the wings.
For more information about Jason Reynolds or to check out his video series, “Write. Right. Rite.”, visit our Engage page.
I love your work. You are doing a fantastic job. Keep up the great work. Continue to let God use you to be the example for our black boys and girls, this is what is needed during these changing times.
This is a compelling narrative. I know in part because I was only going to read the start and save the rest for later, and I kept going. I suppose I also know in part because I fell off the sofa when I was 4, and there were blood and stitches. But really I know this is a compelling because it’s fine, well-stitched (sorry) storytelling. Really great work. Thank you!
Beautiful! As one well-acquainted with older siblings who “didn’t make me” do things (like deliberately stepping on bees barefoot), I appreciate your response. And I agree; it was those crosses from the siblings that have raised me to where I am. I won’t tell them I’m grateful, but I am.
My husband tells me a similar story of his childhood. At two years old, my husband used to stand in his coffee table in the living room and jump off it pretending to be a paratrooper like his dad. Now, my husband has his wings and is a Colonel!
“Sometimes heroes can’t save themselves, and the best thing to do is to try to create new ones from their sidekicks to help”…I am putting this in my quote book…I am blessed with a similar brother. I love your writing. I was a Campus Minister/English teacher at a nearby college here in PA before becoming a children’s librarian…Most of my students were POC and from diverse and war torn countries…Instead of prayer retreats, I held open mics, slam poetry, and beat poetry coffee houses…I taught that these forms of expression are 20th century Psalms….I didn’t know your work then (1990-2016)…But it’s not only Pdalms you are writing it’s the next Testament of the Bible…blessings Jason.