My ears perked up like a curious puppy when I first heard about this book. I can’t say I know much of what 50 Cent has been up to since my tween years, so I was very curious when I discovered he had written an apparently, incredibly impactful book. It was published in 2011, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
When it arrived, I divulged all 314 pages as fast as I had ever read any of the Harry Potter books. In less than 24 hours, I found myself savoring the last few pages, not yet ready to part from my new literary friend—an 8th grade boy from New York, who raised hell, received hell, and then found hope. From page 1 my heart and my stomach were in knots with pain, up until about page 303, I’d say, when the skies started turning blue and the pages started filling with hope.
As the tagline reads, this is “the mostly true story of a former bully.” I found myself immediately attached to our protagonist, thirteen-year-old B-ball, who is just trying to survive junior high, vulnerable and impressionable as any thirteen-year-old. As we get to know him through required therapy sessions, all my tween vulnerabilities resurfaced and I wanted to reach my arms through the pages and hug him and every child who has ever felt such pain, such loneliness, neglect, and the bullying end of the sword.
Playground reminds us of the innate innocence we all are born with, the effects reality can have on our behavior, the importance of talking and being heard, the power of kindness, and what love can look like. The power of this book is that it forces us to open our eyes to the various factors that may affect us to behave in certain ways. Here are 6 important lessons and reminders from Playground.
1.We could all appreciate our mamas a little more. Since his parents divorced about a year ago, B-ball now lives with his mother in the suburbs. B-ball hates the suburbs—it’s so boring. His dad still lives in the city, and is the “cool” parent, because he says “yes” more than his mom does. As we get to know B-ball, it’s clear that he underappreciates his mother, as I’m sure many of us have been guilty of. While B-ball clearly loves his mom, they haven’t been as close lately, because she is working multiple shifts, and any shift she can to make ends meet and study to become a registered nurse. He doesn’t yet seem to grasp that a lot of what she is doing is indeed for him—what he sees is that she works all the time and doesn’t have time for him anymore. That however speaks equally to his naivety and also the importance of parents be aware of and checking in with their kids. B-ball’s mom is stricter about what he can and can’t do, and provides him structure. She even created a system where B-ball gets a quarter for every chore he does. Without him realizing it, she has taught him positive work ethics by making him to work for money, learn to save money, and providing him a level of structure we all need. I think it’s not uncommon that kids underappreciate their mothers, because traditionally, dad is busy away and working, and mom, even if she works, too, she is also doing much of the cooking, cleaning, making lunches, and she’s just in her kids’ faces more. I’m not saying it’s right, but we need to remember to raise kids to recognize and value all the work mom does, especially at home. It’s even more important now as we make the playing grounds more equal, because we have a tendency to view dads doing housework as “helping out” whereas we should be treating housework as a team effort, where everyone does his/her bit.
2.Having good role models is so important. In one chapter, B-ball’s dad finally takes him to get new shoes, and as part of a lesson in “doing what you have to do to get what you want,” he leads B-ball, who is caught off guard, to stealing the shoes he wants. More than once we see B-ball’s dad guide him in very bad and wrong ways, but B-bally, who looks up to his dad and is incredibly impressionable, finds it difficult not to listen to him. We see him struggle with what his gut tells him is right and wrong, and what his dad tells him. This made me very angry, because how cruel is it to knowingly lead, or rather mislead, a child down a dirty slope.
3.Kids are mean. Why and how do kids become mean? This book shows us a few possibilities; but why is it always that the “cool” kids can also be the really mean and exclusive kids. When I think of some of those “cool” kids who are also mean kids, and where some of them are now, I think it’s largely immaturity. Let’s face it, one of the sure signs of growing up is being able to realize what an idiot you once were, accepting that idiot for the lessons you’ve learned, and also realizing and accepting that you’ll still make idiot choices, but hopefully less idiotic. Still, it’s important to instill kindness for all people in our children, and nip bullying in the bud. We have to be able to recognize when our own kid is becoming a bully and reverse that right away. I believe even the rowdiest of kids will know when to be good human beings when the situation calls for it, as I have witnessed it before. (Click here to read an endearing moment that made me smile and filled me with hope.)
4.Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can crush a soul. B-ball is short for “Butterball,” and that is a nickname that stuck when some mean kid yelled that name out loud in front of the whole class. It stuck so hard, that even the teachers started calling him Butterball, and even Butterball started calling himself that. His parents called him Butterball, everyone called him Butterball. It made me sad with pain that he adopted it as his own, as if making it his own would mean it was no longer derogatory. Although, I must add that a mother once told me a story about how kids in school started calling her son “Chocolate,” because his skin was so dark. When she heard that she was shocked and hurt. However, they did turn it into a positive connotation, because this mother said chocolate is sweet, and her son’s favorite dessert was chocolate mousse, so in the end they turned that around. I love that story. That wasn’t the case for Butterball though, and eventually at the very end, when he finds purpose, direction, and hope, he finally asks his therapist to call him by his real name.
5.The importance of talking and being heard. While B-ball was hesitant and resistant to therapy, he was required to go, and initially thought he could, and at times thought he was, outsmarting the therapist. However, over the course of a few months, we see him open up and make huge progress. We see that he eventually looked forward to therapy, even if he wouldn’t admit aloud, but it became a place of refuge for him. Talking is powerful, and having a confidant to speak with often allows us to better process and understand our desires and actions. Just as important, is feeling heard. I don’t think B-ball knew he needed to be heard, or was even trying to be heard, but his therapist heard him and guided him to the light.
6.The importance of the arts. The arts, filmmaking in particular here, gave B-ball a creative outlet. This saved him from his loneliness and provided him a bright pathway to pave. People learn in different ways, and we often focus so much on all of our “flaws and weaknesses,” that we don’t pay attention to our strengths. Thankfully, B-ball’s therapist realized B-ball had a particular passion, and being able to nourish that was going to set him on a positive path forward.
I loved what this story illustrates, and how it reminds us to address the root of our problems. I’ve heard it said that it takes one person to love a child right for all the wrong that child has witnessed to take a backseat to all the right that child can and will do.
If you get the chance, I totally recommend giving this book a read.
BIG LOVE & HUGS