Never let them see you run

King of the street chickens.
Photo by Jesse Schoff / Unsplash
An audio version of “Never let them see you run” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

I

“Never let them see you run.”

That’s what my teaching mentor Henry said to me when I was fresh out of teacher training, sitting in a pink-walled office at Paraparaumu College. It sounds funny on the face of it. Why would it matter if people saw you run? (Unless maybe you have a funny run, like this woman I saw who flapped her arms sideways when running. She was wasting so much energy; the arms were moving in a different direction to the running.)

Henry was only half serious, but I took it full serious. There could be something to this metaphor, I thought. If indeed it was a metaphor.

Henry’s mentor was one of those male teachers who wore walk shorts and knee-high socks back in the day. He had passed this advice down to Henry, and now Henry was passing it on to me. It was now intergenerational; we had carried it between us, thereby giving it weight.

For a while no one at school saw me run. But I got pretty busy teaching, marking and contending with student issues. The pace began to quicken. One lunchtime I had to supervise a lunchtime detention. Two boys – notorious ones – didn’t turn up. We got started, and the rest of the students scratched at the work their teachers had set them. It was quiet for a few minutes. Then someone slammed into the other side of the heavy wooden door with a mighty bang. There was some laughter back and forth, and scuffling feet. By the time I got across the room and opened the door, the culprits had sprinted around the corner. This happened a couple more times, but I couldn’t catch those door smashers in the act.

Unless, perhaps, I ran after them.

I tried waiting close to the door, but whoever they were – and I had a pretty good idea who, looking at those two empty seats – they were fast. Their laughter grew more brazen. They were having a great time. They were goading me to run.

After the fourth time, I burst through the door. I saw a foot disappearing around the corner.

I ran.

I chased the sound of their footfalls scratching and squeaking on the hot asphalt. I almost lost them because they kept zigzagging between buildings, but I could follow the sound of their guffaws.

They saw me run.

Not just the two notorious boys who were having the best detention experience of their lives, but all the children out in the yard, who were eating lunch, chatting or playing games. They all saw. My face flushed red. My curly hair slapped into my eyes, wet with sweat.

I knew right then that it was good advice never to let them see you run. I had seen that they had all seen me run, and there was no doubt in my mind that this seeing had made an impression.

I caught up with the detention boys, but by that point I was so out of breath I had very little to say.

II

I didn’t stay a secondary teacher for that long. A couple of years.

I did start a list of personal mantras, to calibrate me.

“Never let them see you run” was the first one.

When I met my partner Vic, whom I’ve now been with for more than ten years, I did not want for her to see me run in any capacity. She is a person who moves through space calmly. I tried to fall in step with her. But she saw me run soon enough. She told me to stop flapping about, that it’s not good for you. She’s right, but it’s hard when your legs are itching to run.

When our son Neko had an accident at kindy, they told us over the phone that there was some blood. Be prepared, they said. When we got there – fast – they told us we should sit down. The bite he’d inflicted upon his own tongue falling off the playground equipment sounded pretty serious to us, but Neko seemed okay with it. He smiled and I saw that his tongue now had its own smile, another mouth within the tongue. I recoiled in horror, and my son saw me run. Away. He just thought it was funny.

The doctor was blasé about it. He diagnosed ice cream. I paced the hallways, wondering about him eating ice cream with those two mouths, and how on earth the two halves of the tongue would mesh back together on their own. The doctor was confident they would, but I had never met this doctor before, who just suggested my son eat ice cream. That’s not what ice cream is for.

Except that it is.

My son couldn’t have been happier.

III

I wanted our new puppy to stop running, so I tried not to run in front of him. But he’s a puppy, I realised, as I chased him across the yard as he was chasing the cat. We were all running in a chain, each chasing the other’s tail, except for the cat, who just wanted to be left alone.

I let the puppy be a puppy, eventually. Within reason. Eventually there came a point where I felt like I’d clocked puppy ownership. He listened, came when he was told, sat when prompted to sit. Relative calm. At the park down the road, while we were out on a walk, he came over and looked up at me with those permanently-sad-looking brown eyes. We’re in sync, I thought. We get each other.

“Whatchya got there, boy?”

He opened his mouth and spat out a poo on the ground at my feet. Is it worse that it wasn’t his? Yes. Definitely worse.

We ran home.

A few weeks later I left the back door open and the puppy scampered out into the pitch black of a moonless night, into the garden and back again. He sat on the kitchen floor.

“Whatchya got there, boy?”

It was a huge cat poo, stuck to the pads of his foot. He started to lick it off.

Vic calmly ran a bath for him while I ran around in circles.

I mean, the dog does other stuff, too. I might be misrepresenting the poor guy. But these are the motifs that really stay with me. And populate my nightmares.

IV

The rooster saw me run. I tried to approach quietly, but he was suspicious – and rightly so. I ran, and he ran, and, well, roosters are pretty fast, and they can zoom into tiny spaces.

Vic’s afraid of the chickens flapping and I’m not, and this makes me glad because at least I can be the composed one for a change.

I lured him with food, and put him in a wee box and took him to a new home. I thought “new home” was a euphemism for someone’s dinner, but it actually was a place where the people wanted to breed chickens. At least, that’s what they told us.