time is time

Mel Pender's Philosophy


Little Mel Pender was sitting in his fourth grade class, paying attention to his teacher’s lecture on Australia when the urge to get outside as fast as possible hit him for the first time. His name was a small tribute to the sprinter Mel Pender because his father, Raymond Pender (and no relation to the track star) decided to pay homage to the Olympian by naming his progeny after his hero. Raymond’s wife had no idea of Mel Pender’s sprinting celebrity but she did like the name so everyone was happy.

Not many other folks had heard of the name so little Mel didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining anything name-related. He lived in Nova Scotia, not exactly the hotbed of track or field, so the name remained quietly under the radar of schoolyard taunting and only raised an eyebrow of an enlightened and engaged adult approximately every blue moon or so. Mel was a friendly boy with no known enemies so further taunting was avoided due to his ability to get along with all the playground constituencies.

As Mel sat politely in class, he literally had to keep himself seated because the urge to run out the door and get outside was growing precipitously by the minute. As he looked at the clock, he realized it was about five minutes before playground time and made a deal with the internal volcanic energy to subside until the opportunity presented itself. His right leg was shittling up and down involuntarily and the tiny release of effort seemed to slightly placate the urge but the retarding effort was just buying time. The clock continued to tick away and once the second hand arched across the top of the clock and the teacher told them to “go outside,” Mel left as quickly as he could and began to run. The schoolyard was a large rectangle, mirroring the school building, and provided the children with a larger-than-average play area. Leading the class, Mel hit the cement in full sprint and continued to the far end of the playground. As he ran, he felt liberated but didn’t know why this moment had demanded him to run like a banshee.

Similarly to a drowning man gasping for breath, Mel continued to run to the other corner of the playground. When he was in full-on motion, he felt self-actualized but he had no idea why this feeling seemed so necessary and so critical for this moment but even as a fourth grader, he realized it was time to run now and think later. He continued to run and a few other classmates decided to run with him. He began to run to the next corner, diagonally opposite of his second destination and as he started, he was surprised to see about ten classmates directly behind him. The sight of seeing eleven students running across the field caused the rest of the class to become a pre-pubescent peloton, following suit with a combination of excessive energy and ignorance. By the end of the playtime, the whole class had run for several miles and they all arrived back in the class completely spent and wet with fourth grade perspiration.

Little Mel had no idea why the urge came to him and he was equally clueless why the urge then disappeared. He thought it was one of those things and with the urge to run sated, he didn’t give it another thought and the day ended as it began. A few classmates asked why he was running so much but he had no idea.

"I don’t know why I did,” said Mel. “I just felt like running.”

The next day, no urge visited him and Mel just walked outside and looked for a ball or some close friends to play catch with during recess.

“Hey, Mel!” shouted a few kids, “Let’s run again today.”

“Maybe tomorrow, I am not feeling it right now.”

A few of the most restless took off running to the far corner but this day’s group quickly dispersed. Yesterday’s magic was not there and within a few minutes, the group returned and blended into the rest of the class and fell back into general chit-chat, a half-hearted game of four square and a few brave souls entertained themselves on the assembled collection of playground equipment but it wasn’t the same as the day before.

The next day when Mel woke, he sensed the urge was back. It was controllable yet dormant but there was no doubt that today would include another cross-playground journey. As he walked to school, he made a point to tell his friends that he would be running at recess.  By the time it was time to go onto the playground, the entire class was ready to run along. If asked, no one would have a good answer other than the fact that everyone else was doing it as well.

“Are you running today, Mel?” asked one of his buddies as they left the classroom.

“I sure am,” said Mel as he changed into a pair of athletic shoes that were sitting in his locker cubbie and removed his sweater. On Monday, he had run in his boots the first time and he wanted to streamline and improve his experience. He could run in his boots without a problem but he was looking forward to attempting the fun run again with less-heavy footwear and without a bulky sweater.

“Are you running today, Mel?” asked Jeanie Netherly. She was the class fox, at least for fourth grade and her questions always garnered an answer from any young man within earshot.

“You bet, Jeannie.”

His pace quickened as he walked out the door and began to run as soon as his face felt the outside air. Behind him quickly fell the entire class and together they ran to the far side of the playground. The fourth grade class shared recess time with both the fifth and sixth grade classes and the sight of the entire group sprinting away from the school gave the impression to the other grades that the school was about to explode. Thanks to standardized testing two days ago, the fourth graders ran their maiden race all by themselves as the two older classes were jammed into the cafeteria and gymnasium with their heads down, filling in circles on a pile of skills tests.

“What is going on?” screamed several of the older children. “Why are you running?”

“We’re running but Mel is running,” said one of the girls trailing up the rear. Her answer was matter of fact and without desire for debate. She passed the group of questioning students and as the group separated from the other grades and the building, several students joined the fray. By the time Mel returned to begin the second lap, more and more students joined until by the end of the fifth and final lap, the entire upper classes of the grade school were running in unison, again for no known reason, with Mel leading the way.

At the end of the fifth lap, Mel stopped. He wasn’t tired at all but he knew it would take time for the entire group to complete the fifth lap so he began to clap and encourage the slower runners to finish with a flourish. Mel still had no reason why he all of a sudden began running in the middle of the day but he felt an obligation of the group of kids that has been following him. Since they were encouraging him to lead the pack, the least he could do would is support the harriers as they all finished their own individual races.

A few of the more clumsy or overweight kids were at the back of the group but Mel remained at the finish line, shouting encouragements and clapping enthusiastically each time someone limped across the line. The teacher stood transfixed on the side of the building, leaning against the brick wall, still trying to figure out what has happened over the last three days. A good student has unexpectedly started running at recess and through no encouragement or coercion, the entire upper class population has followed suit. It was unclear if the followers were lemmings, disciples or a hybrid of the two spectrums but one fact remained clear: Mel liked to run.

As Mel walked in after the recess-warning bell, the teacher called out his name.

“Oh, Mel. Could you come here please?”

"Sure Miss Frederichs. What can I do for you?”

“May I ask you a question?”

“Yes, Ma’am. What is it?”

“Why, all of a sudden, have you started to run at recess?”

“I have no idea. All of a sudden, I got the urge to run two days ago. It was all I could think about and when I got outside, I just started to run.”

“And?”

“And the kids started following me. I didn’t ask them to run with me, really. I didn’t talk to anyone but I looked around after awhile, I saw everyone.”

“And?”

“And? I think that is about the story. I don’t know why the fifth and sixth graders joined in today.”

“And?”

“Anything else, Mel?”

“The only thing else is that when I am running, I feel great.”

His smile actually beamed off his sweaty face. The young teacher couldn’t decide if she was experiencing a good thing or a bad thing but she was pleased with the results. The class was much better behaved with no outbursts or attitude-driven sarcasm. The strenuous physical exercise was a nice release for them all, even the less physically gifted ones, to get out and push themselves to their own personal limits. In addition, when dealing with little Mel Pender, it appeared that it was giving him much more.

The next day, the entire school started asking Mel how he felt and whether or not he was in the mood to run. He was a bit surprised that he was the unofficial running arbiter for the entire school but he was even more surprised that he had lost the urge to run for the day. It was too early for a pattern to be established but the on-again, off-again trend was becoming clear but even that provided him with no clues on his new found hobby. By the early part of the day, he began to tell people that it wasn’t going to happen today and quickly his decision was passed through the school. No one challenged his decision nor did anyone attempt to replace Mel as the lead runner. The collective opinion of the group was that Mel was the man: when he ran, they all ran and when he didn’t have the feeling, they all stood down.

The sixth graders were surprisingly in compliance as well. No one from the group even questioned the mood of the surprising fourth grader and his intentions were considered pure. Everyone knew Mel, as it was a small school, but his recent decision to just start to run was becoming part of his legacy. Up until that week, Mel was a normal kid with normal athletic and social skills but in a few days, a lot can happen. The same people said hello to him and the same group had lunch together but he enjoyed a shaman’s rank in the narrow but attention-getting role of the head runner.

His mood was checked everyday and when he decided to run, the entire school was prepared. The lunchroom was clearing out exceptionally early during the hour as well as the number of kids that would gobble down their bag lunches on the way to lunch in case that Mel got the calling to start running earlier than usual. Each time he ran, the feeling was euphoric and the following day, the feeling ceased to exist. After a few weeks, Miss Frederichs buttonholed Mel outside the cafeteria. The entire school, including her, knew that Mel had decided not to run so the pace in the lunchroom was almost leisurely and without concern.

“Mel,” said Miss Frederichs, “The word is that today is a non-running day.”

“I suppose,” said Mel. “Other people can run if they want, I just don’t want to today.”

“Well, no one runs without you leading them.”

“I know,” said Mel without emotion. “I hope I am not keeping some kid from running because I don’t want to run.”

“I don’t think so,” said Miss Frederichs. “I am proud how you have continued to run and have made sure everyone’s involved.”

“Thanks,” said Mel, “But I just want people to run when they feel like it, not just because I feel like it.”

“I think you make it fun for them.”

“They have to enjoy it because they like to run. I can’t make it fun for them, but I guess if I can help them, I am okay about it.”

The teacher was in quiet admiration of the young man; his answers were thoughtful and sincere. He hadn’t stammered, as fourth graders usually do, or relied on stupid catch phrases such as the over abused “you know” or the multi-abused word “like.”  He looked at his teacher when spoken to and listened politely. She had remained on the sidelines over the last few days, trying to determine its origin or purpose but no revelations had yet been forthcoming. If the pattern continued, tomorrow would be an official running day and she would have another chance to observe the burgeoning dynamic.

Mel woke up on Friday and could feel his legs moving already. As he ate breakfast, all he could think about was the schoolyard field. The feeling of running across the grass, feeling the slight yield in the ground as he ran was foremost in his mind. The urge to run was not all encompassing but it had some impressive effects: He didn’t remember getting dressed or going to school but as soon as he walked into the classroom, the entire class looked at him for a signal.

“We’re running!” screamed a boy close to Mel. He could see Mel’s eyes were bright and encouraging and Mel looked at him and nodded. The nod resulted in a cheer throughout the classroom; the cacophony was heard in the next classroom, resulting in the fifth grade class cheering and it’s noise caused the sixth graders to respond in kind. The school was looking forward to lunch and as the kids streamed out of the cafeteria, after bolting their food, the teachers all convened together on the edge of the playground to see the groups run en masse.

“I had heard about this yesterday,” said Karen Lewis, the fifth grade teacher.

“I just heard about it ten minutes ago,” said the sixth grader teacher, Liv Herzog. “I had no idea what it meant until I saw them all start running.”

“Just wait for them all to come back,” said Miss Frederichs. “Mel leads them like a battalion; they are in step both literally and figuratively. They all are excited to run and it is the only time I have ever seen so many kids so happy.”

“I think it is a bit strange.”

“No argument from me,” said Miss Frederichs. “But it is a good kind of strange. Kids that never ran before are running and the slowest ones are having just as fun as the fastest ones.”

The whole group ran from corner to corner several times with Mel leading the way. Occasionally, he would motion for someone else to take the lead but the first tier of runners all shook their heads. The leadership role continued to be odd for him; he just wanted to run for the sheer love of the feeling he got. The idea that he was better than the other kids was a bit troubling because that was not his intention.

After the fifth lap, he stopped near the black top area and began to cheer on the followers. Again, he remained until the last kids made it across the line, showing them all the proper respect for their effort. If, at anytime during a run, he determined there was a chance he might lap a slower child, he would deviate his route in order to save them the humiliation of being passed up. No one asked him why he would add small circles or skew off in another direction; but he would not say anything in case his reasoning would embarrass anyone. The thought of something that he loved hurting someone else was too much pressure to bring it to the group’s attention.

He remained at the line, clapping and shouting out names of children that finished their run. The group was mixed with all grades so a slow but growing homogeneity was building throughout the school. The younger grades had all heard about the runs, watching from the cafeteria or hearing about it from their older siblings, but they would have to wait their turn. No group runs for the lower grades would be allowed per the principal’s directive. The little ones were in awe of the older children and were very adamant about eventually getting a chance to “run with Mel.”

Throughout the spring, Mel averaged making the run about two to three times a week. The consistent event allowed the entire group to get better and better in many ways. The overall physical well being improved, the social caste system was dismantled, the self-esteem of the less fortunate was increasing and both class production and behavior was markedly effective. The kids seemed to get a lot out of the event, which showed up in their spring standardized test scores and Presidential Physical Fitness Awards. The principal received calls from happy parents and teachers received kudos from their associations and peers for assistance with their own issues. Each time, they were asked what their secret, the person would simply say “Mel.”

It was not long before the local newspaper got wind of this story, which had all the right ingredients for human interest gold. The reporter contacted the principal and asked to talk to Mel. The principal, still flush with her new found greatness, assured the reporter that it would happen but she had to get a hold of Mel’s parents to get permission since the interview would be on school grounds. She told the reporter that she would get back to him in a few moments and hung up. In the same motion, she picked up the phone while gazing at Mel’s school file and dialed up his home phone number.

“Hello?” said a woman’s voice in a pleasant and undisturbed tone.

“Mrs. Pender?”

“Yes, it is. May I help you?”

“Yes, this is Mariah Collins, the principal at Mel’s school.”

“Yes, May I help you, Ms. Collins?”

Her voice did not change as Mariah expected. Usually her phone calls resulted in parents freaking out, fearing the worst possible news because the principal is calling. Mrs. Pender either was a very cool customer or didn’t hear her title. Nevertheless, she didn’t have time to determine that issue, as she wanted to get her and the school some positive publicity because of Mel’s good works.

“Well, Mrs. Pender, “ started the principal, “the reason I am calling is all good news. Mel is doing fine so don’t worry that anything is wrong.”

Mrs. Pender said nothing.

The call did not alarm her because she knew Mel was a good boy and careful with everything. She knew her kid would not be run over by a car or break his leg due to carelessness; he knew better and so did she. He had never been a problem, always a good kid with no concern for anything. Any call regarding Mel would be at worst, informational and at best, additional acclaim for one of his acts.

The principal continued, “Thanks to your son’s love of physical fitness, he has helped transform the entire upper classes into a group of well-behaved and active students.”

“What did Mel do?” Mrs. Pender was not acting coy; she had no idea what the principal was talking about.

“What did Mel do? Of course you know what Mel is doing….don’t you know? He has organized the upper three classes into a running club.”

“A running club? Mel organizing? Are you sure?” Mrs. Pender’s voice created some emotion, it was nether positive or negative, but the information did get a rise of her.

“Why of course,” continued the principal, “because of Mel, all the kids are running at lunch, are acting more mature, are testing better and everything is wonderful. Because of Mel, everything at the school is great.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. And the newspaper wants to come to the school and interview him on his creativity and innovative teaching techniques.”

“Innovative teaching techniques? Mel is only nine years old.”

“I know,” ejaculated Mariah, “That is what makes this so special.”

“Well, Mrs. Collins. I will talk to Mel tonight and if he wishes to be interviewed, I will agree but if he decides to not do it, I will support that as well. And, I hope you will support his decision, either way.”

“Absolutely.”

That night during dinner, Mrs. Pender asked Mel how his day was at school.

“It was fine.”

“Did you do  anything special?”

“Not  really.”

“I got a call from your principal today. She said because of you, school is a wonderful place to be.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Care to explain your innovative teaching techniques?”

“What?”

“What is going on at school. What are you doing?”

“Nothing. I just like to run at recess. And when I run, all the kids run with me. That’s it.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes ma’am. There are days that I get the urge to run so I do. The teachers are okay with it and more and more kids follow me. That is all, I swear.”

“Are you mean to anyone? Do you exclude anyone?”

“No, I am nice to everyone. We get along great.”

“Would you like to be interviewed for the newspaper?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because it is not about me, it is about running.”

“And?”

“And if get my name in the paper, there will be a picture of me acting like it was my idea. The only idea I had was for me to run. The other kids had their own idea to do it. Also, it is personal.”

“Why is it so personal?”

“Because I also help the other kids, the slower kids, to do what they want. I don’t want to come across as some big know-it-all that helps the slow kids. They can’t help it if they are slow. They are trying and I think that is great.”

“So do I.”

“And the newspaper will take a picture of me with the slow kids, which would be mean. Or they would take my picture all by myself, which is not true. Or, they take my picture with the fast kids, which would leave people out.”

“Do you think they could tell the story right? Just that I like to run?” asked Mel.

“I don’t think so,” said his mother. “They would be writing about the wrong things.”

The next day, Mrs. Pender called the school and asked for the principal. The principal wasn’t in the office, she was out buying a new suit or Mrs. Pender left a voice message. All it said was “Mel has decided not to participate. He just wants to run.”


Mel Pender is one of the world's fastest men but unfortunately, the distances he has mastered are moderately short ones. I am not implying that his many feats are less impressive than others, on the contrary. I feel he would provide a nice metaphor for life in general and the importance of knowing when to run hard, when to stop running and to learn to love what you do.

I remember growing up with him competing in Olympic track and field events and the announcers would praise his unique abilities to leave the starting blocks before anyone else and I can hear people like Jim McKay screaming his name immediately after hearing a starter's pistol. This skill helped him become a medal winner as well as a record holder, albeit a specialist in the shorter distances. Being part of the public eye, his name can be used but  I will not disparage his reputation in any way. I chose his name as an example of excellence as his skills make for a wonderful image to write a story about applying physical demands and realities to teach of our own personal races. 

Obviously, I have taken a fair amount of literary license here because I have not had the honor of meeting Mel Pender but since fiction writing allows us all to dream our little dreams, I figure the opportunity to use the Mel's name as a metaphor for a short story doesn't happen everyday. 

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