"So, Ray," asked his mother, "what do you want for your birthday?"
It was a surprisingly hard question to answer. What did he want for his birthday? "I don't know, Mom. Can I get back to you on that one?"
Ray grabbed his skateboard and went out to the driveway to think as he rode. What did he want for his birthday? It was the kind of question that deserved his best thinking. Ray remembered back to his birthday a year ago, when he unwrapped the skateboard he was riding now. He felt a wave of excitement rush over him once again as he pictured unwrapping the bright purple box. He had barely taken the time to yell: "Cool! Thanks!" before he ran off to call his best friend, Vikram, to let him know that they would be riding together now. Ray thought back to all the time he had spent on the driveway, practicing his tricks. He'd gotten pretty good in just a year! There must be something else for this year that would be as much fun.
As Ray cruised down the slope of the driveway, his mind drifted back to that first day, when Vikram had come over to teach him how to ride the board. "It's all about balance," he'd said, "and balance is all about knowing where your center is." As he approached the bottom of the driveway, Ray shifted his center of gravity just a bit to the right, pushing the board into a turn. "It's all about balance, and balance is all about knowing where your center is."
"Funny," thought Ray, "but I think my center is right here, riding my skateboard. This is where my life feels balanced, where I feel the most like me. What other birthday present is going to do that?"
All of a sudden, the idea came to Ray in a flash. He remembered how his church, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, had started something different that people could do around Christmas. Every family in the congregation was asked to think about what they would usually spend on Christmas presents, and then to give half of that amount to a special fund at the church, the Greater Good program. Ray had been amazed when their one congregation had raised $64,000! The money had gone to help local families, and to help a village in Honduras get fresh water.
Ray had worried, at first, about having only half a Christmas. But it had been, after all, a whole Christmas, only with not so many presents. And somehow the good feeling of helping out families with so much less than he had lasted longer than the excitement of unwrapping a whole pile of gifts.
Ray wondered, "What would it be like to have half a birthday?" Maybe pretty good.
"Hey, Ray!" someone called, interrupting his thoughts.
"Oh, hi, Sebastian," Ray said, jumping gracefully off his skateboard. "What's up?"
Sebastian was in Ray's class at school, but they did not usually play together outside of school. Sebastian was not a skateboarder. Now he was just sitting on the front steps of his building.
"Nothing much," Sebastian said. "I just came outside for a little while. I'm not doing anything." Ray noticed that Sebastian was looking at Ray's skateboard.
"Do you want to try it?" Ray asked.
Sebastian frowned. "Sure I do, but I don't know how. It looks hard."
"Well, I could show you. I could help you," Ray said.
Ray handed Sebastian the skateboard. Sebastian looked like he did not know what to do with it. "Okay," Ray said, taking the skateboard back. He showed Sebastian how to place his left foot and kick off with his right. Then Sebastian tried it. He wiggled too much and quickly jumped off, looking embarrassed. But then he tried it again. Ray encouraged Sebastian. He heard himself saying the same words Vikram had said to him: "It's all about balance, finding your center."
By the time Ray had to go home, Sebastian was really catching on. He hopped off the skateboard and handed it back to Ray, a big smile on his face.
"You should get a skateboard, too," Ray told him. "You could ride around with Vikram and me."
"Yeah, that would be cool," Sebastian said, "but I don't think that's going to happen. There's not a lot of money for big presents at my house, but I had fun learning how to do it. Thanks a lot."
"Sure," said Ray. "See you tomorrow."
"Yeah, see you tomorrow," said Sebastian, and went back into his building. Watching the door close behind Sebastian, Ray felt sad. It wasn't fair that some kids could have a skateboard, and other kids who would really like riding one could not. It wasn't fair when kids wanted to play a sport, and their families could not pay for all the fees and equipment and special clothes.
Suddenly, Ray knew what he wanted for his birthday. He pushed his board back up the driveway as fast as he could go. "Mom! I know what I want for my birthday! I want half a birthday!" The words tumbled out of his mouth as Ray explained. It didn't take his mother long to figure it out.
"A sports fund for kids. What a great idea! I think we could get a lot of people's help at church."
"Could a sports fund be part of the Greater Good program?" Ray asked. "There are so many people at church, and everyone has a birthday. Every year. Not just the kids, either. If all the kids and all the grown-ups at church were willing to have half a birthday, that's a lot of money for skateboards and helmets for kids whose families can't afford them."
"Frankly, I had no idea what to get you," his mother said. "Goodness knows there's enough stuff in your bedroom, and all you really like to play with is your skateboard."
"I could give away other stuff. But not my skateboard," said Ray.
"Well, your idea involves giving up presents you don't really need," said his mother. "Then we can use the money to help other people get something they do need. It's kind of like having your cake and eating it too."
"Oh, I definitely want cake on my birthday."
"That's not what I meant." His mom laughed. "I just meant it's the kind of birthday present that is good in a lot of different ways. It's very... "
"Balanced?" Ray filled in.
"Yes," said his mom. "You give up some birthday presents, and you get back something much more valuable. You will know you helped make things more fair. When the gifts you gave up help someone else, that makes a kind of balance. If that makes any kind of sense."
"Yep," said Ray. "It does. If I can find my center and my balance, that's the best birthday present I can think of."
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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.