Squared Off by Philip Swanstrom Shaw

In the schoolyard, we see two children squared off. They stand only feet apart, staring at one another with what could be malicious intent. They either look into one another’s face or into a fixed point between them. Their hands hover before them with curled fingers. But they’re not wielding fists. Yet.

Now we see a third child, who had been daydreaming the entirety of their Social Studies class, now turn to gaze out the window toward the schoolyard. They notice our first two children squared off out on the playground. Within the faces of the first two children our third child sees what they want to see. They see malicious intent. They leap upon their chair to point toward the first two children outside in the schoolyard, to scream, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

It follows then that all the children from the Social Studies classroom, and in fact every classroom in the school, now rush from their desks. They leave chairs strewn and adult’s attentions behind. Rather than rush to windows to point and scream, they head directly to the playground to encircle the two squared off children. There they all begin to chant in unison, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

Of course, the teachers must now head after them in protective pursuit. As they arrive on the playground to return order, they find that they themselves are compelled to dismiss their charge. They cannot but help themselves as they join the chorus with, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

It’s now left to the administrators. The last responsible defense between children and litigiously linked outcomes. They must rouse to duty from behind protective desks and office doors to rush headlong into the schoolyard, never questioning their charge to take charge. Until they too find themselves unable to control the concerted call to arms ushering forth from their mouths with, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

Now SkyChopper5 is hovering above. Even over the din of rotors the pilot-cum-reporters have heard the kerfuffle and deviated from their daily route of reporting on interstate traffic. With a live event of unknown origins below, they yearn to be the ones to break a story for meager glory. And now as cameras roll, the footage immediately broadcasting live to their channel, their feed also becomes instantly syndicated across every channel. And the pilot-reporters, desperate to provide their own exclusive coverage that will reach every home viewer, prepare their own careful words as they hover. Words to describe live-from-the-scene-blow-by-blows in glorious detail. Until the only words they can muster are, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

And so now, of course, from living rooms and from airport lounges and from pool halls across the nation, echoes can be heard of every rapt TV-audience member beginning their own chants in varying decibel levels of, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

And between breaths, every on-site attendee and every viewer out-there in-TV-Land, begins to sense a growing impatience. Perhaps an anxiety related to wondering when fists will finally collide to do the real-world bidding of all this chanting. But that’s not it. That isn’t what is missing.

Then altogether, silence. All bleatings have stopped. SkyChopper5 is frozen in mid-air without a rotor turning. In this silence, every one of us looks around to our lefts and to our rights to see who has arrived in this moment among us.

There are all the students, all the teachers, all the administrators, and there are all of the janitorial staff. There are even more frozen sky choppers, even more news teams on the ground in vans, and there’s even the old widow who lives across from the schoolyard who has never had any of her own children but has always believed that no child is ever up to no good over there. And there’s the porn star and her co-star ‘delivery boy’ and the entirety of their film crew who are standing in front of the house up the block that had been for sale for months until it started to be rented to film fake fucking, and now because of all of our shouting they just couldn’t get a clean take. And there’s the dogs who jumped fences to bark in unison. And there are the squirrels and cats and crows who would otherwise never be ignored by all these dogs. And there are even the perverts who left their strategically parked El Torinos full of candy just outside the drug zone limits of the school yard. All of us, wherever we are, circling our two squared-off children.

And we come to realize all our bated breath is not from our waiting for fists, but for who has gone missing from our long list. Our rallying cheer for violence quieted in a synchronized moment to take inventory of ourselves. Complete silence to search for what vital someone has gone missing from our scene, missing from our viewerships at home and abroad.

Our chants of FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! that had gone quiet together are being replaced with our collective murmurs of wondering. Each who silenced our urging are asking, “Where the hell’s the internet?” or, “When will the online show up?” and, “Surely the World’s Wide Web should’ve been here by now.”

And from between the full-stop silence of our goading and the now of our murmured questioning, we see how all our bodies are pitched forward on the playground, tilting toward our televisions, leaning further out our frozen-in-the-sky sky choppers and news vans and El Torinos, shoving into cyclone fences built around our schoolyards to protect our young as we finally begin to look closer. Each and every one of us searching toward that original fixed point between the two squared-off children.

Now our final strain to hear the voices of our original children, who this entire time have been ignoring us as their fingers curl and wiggle in an invisible space between and before us. Each reaching toward an unfixed point in space we call a cloud, where we’ve all been wiggling as we whisper, “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”


Philip Swanstrom Shaw designs, writes, and directs communications on behalf of organizations working to advance education, health, equity, and the literary arts. He visually documents his writing process at www.aRoughDraft.com.

Image: Timothy Eberly