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Teeter Totters and Other Lessons in Trust

The teeter-totter, see-saw, uppie-downie thing, or whatever name you might’ve given it, was one of the earliest devices by which to learn trust. Come to think of it, a lot of the toys on the old playgrounds taught their own lessons in trust. The first was that you trusted the grown-ups who built the thing had your safety in mind. In hindsight, when I look back on the playgrounds of my youth …

Anyway, let’s chat about the teeter-totter, shall we?

For you younger folks who don’t know what they are, basically, it was a long plank, about twelve inches wide by about four inches thick, balanced across a horizontal pole. If it was a fancy one, it was made of hard plastic, or the wood had been sanded to a smooth finish before several coats of lacquer were lovingly applied. And there was even a hand grip. A HAND GRIP!

Or, if it was one of those playgrounds where the dads all got together one Saturday to drink beer and “build some toys”, then it was a rough, slightly wavy piece of whatever scrap wood they could rustle up. And don’t even think you’re getting a hand grip. Oh, no, that was for the “rich kids”. You were stuck wrapping your chubby, little hands around the edge of that nasty piece of wood and holding on for dear life. All you could hope was that you didn’t pull away a bloody, sliver-filled mess.

Ideally, a child of similar size and mass was placed at each end. You smiled and laughed as you each went up then down, up then down. Over and over. Feeling the wind in your hair, the joy of being a kid. Sometimes, you might even add additional people, to balance out the weight. Oh, what fun.

Everything was going along just fine until someone, usually the heaviest kid on the thing, got the bright idea to jump off when their end was at the bottom. That was when you learned about gravity, as the other end of the board, with the small human child or children on it, crashed to the ground. It’s important to note, there was no padding on this see-saw-of-death.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Your teeth would clack together, the pain would rocket from your tailbone and shoot straight up your back to blast out the top of your head. The kid who jumped off pointed and laughed, ha-ha-ha, so funny. But, it wasn’t funny, and you didn’t laugh.

You instinctively trusted that everyone would do their part, that they would maintain the balance, the teeter-totter status quo, as it were. But, no. For the first time in your young life, your trust had been broken.

But, in the way of kids, you picked yourself up off the ground, rubbed your butt, dug the slivers out of your hand, then raced over to the metal merry-go-round. Recess only lasted fifteen minutes, after all.

There it sat in all its circular glory. Rusted steel, peeling paint (most likely lead-based), and slightly wobbly, it emitted a squealing noise loud enough to raise the dead. This was where you got your first exposure to what it felt like having diamond-plate sheet metal scraped across your bare skin. It was typically set off by itself on the playground, with plenty of open space around it. You understood the need for space the first time you lost your grip and were tossed off the stupid thing.

Where was the trust exercise, you ask? It was when you plopped your butt in the middle of the thing, wrapped your arms and legs around a metal bar, and trusted someone else to spin you around and around, then stop when you said, stop. You’d start off laughing, as the world whizzed past in a blur of colors. The faster you went, the more you realized the bologna sandwich your mom made you for lunch really really wanted to make a reappearance.

You yelled to your friend, “Okay, okay. Stop, stop. That’s enough.” But they didn’t listen. They just kept laughing and pushing, and pushing and laughing until, finally, you carefully crab-walk to the edge, only to be hurled into space by centrifugal force. As you were sailing through the air, getting another lesson in physics—and trust—all you could hope for was that you might land in the one random patch of grass that hadn't yet been trampled into dust by thousands of little feet.

And what about the metal slide someone assured you wasn’t hot at all. There you were, climbing the ladder that was much too high for little kids, happy as can be in the cute little shorts your mom made for you. Without a care in the world, you set yourself down at the top of the slide and gave yourself a good, solid push. The moment you began your descent, you realized you’d made a grievous error—the temperature of the slide closely resembled the surface of the sun. Your bare legs ended up with near third-degree burns (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration) and, in the process, you’d left a DNA sample behind in the form of a layer of skin. Good times.

Once again, your trust had been broken. Gone was the one hundred percent pure innocence of youth. Lost on the battlefield known as the playground. But, here’s the interesting thing about kids—they are incredibly forgiving. They haven’t learned how to carry a grudge yet.

There was a very good chance you’d see the kids from the teeter-totter riding bikes together later, cracking up laughing about something, and excited about their sleepover that night. Or, the kid who almost tossed his cookies on the merry-go-round would be seen building a skateboard ramp with the very same kid who caused him to have to jump for his life.

As adults, most of us will never trust as easily as we did before the world taught us not to. Before we started, figuratively, building walls around ourselves. We already know someone might jump off the teeter-totter, or push us too high on a swing. The question becomes, how do we work around this lack of trust, this inability to take someone at face value?

The willingness to give people second chances is what kids possess. Perhaps we need to search for our inner kid and jump back on that teeter-totter.

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