This afternoon, taking a break from raking the remnants of oak leaves from the front lawn, I heard a child cry out, followed by muffled sobbing. I stood up from my seat on the porch and quickly scanned the area. There on the sidewalk, near a neighbor's driveway was a boy sprawled near a bicycle. The front wheel was off and the boy was hugging himself, trying desperately not to cry out again. I moved quickly toward him, hunched down to assess his injuries: banged knees, elbows and chin. I introduced myself, and asked him for his name. "Daniel," he managed, just above a whisper. I asked if I could call someone for him, he shook his head empahtically: No! I asked if I could take a look at his knees - they were swelling up quickly. I offered ice, water, a phone. He declined. I asked if I could assist him getting home, again he declined with a desperate shake of his head. He seemed to be fighting back tears. I watched his face grimaced in pain.
Then I understood completely. More awful than the physical pain, more humiliating than the embarrassment at the kindness of this stranger before him, was the awesome fear of parental rebuke.
After a moment, I told him quickly about a spill I took from a bike at age 14, the broken nose, the knocked out front tooth. The anger from my parents all the way to the hospital.
Then I asked how I could help. He started to shake his head again, but then brightened with an idea: he asked if I had any tools. I asked if he could stand. He did so, wincing and tried to pick up the bike. I intervened and handed him the front wheel. I picked up the bike and we walked slowly to our porch. I was glad to see he could walk. I went inside to get a toolbox A few minutes later, I found the problem - the hex nut on one side kept slipping as I tightened it. I told him he'd need to get the bolt on the hub replaced. He then suggested a hammer, and as I realized the source of the problem (that he had most likely applied a hammer to this bolt) I recognized all the times I had been shamed as a child for similar incidents of clever, but ultimately self defeating ingenuity. So I simply explained what happens when one hammers a bolt - the threads strip and it makes it impossible to tighten the hex nut. So this bolt wouldn't hold the wheel in place for long, and the same thing would happen, again - only next time he might land on his face or head or worse. He asked me how far I thought he could get before it happened again. I stated, I didn't think he could go very fast or very far, and he'd be better off walking the bike home. He thanked me, and as he was wheeling the bike away I said, "Just pay it forward. You do something nice for someone else today."