It’s not a big deal, except that it is

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This is “Carnival Doggie.”  Four-year-old Luke won him a few months back, at a local carnival.

After a few hours of fun, I’d told the boys they could do one more ride each before leaving.  “I don’t want to do a ride,” said six-year-old Matthew.  “I want to play a game.”  He indicated the booth where you throw darts at balloons to win a prize.  Three sides of the booth were hung with clusters of stuffed animals in varying sizes and colors.

“Me too!” said Luke.

“Are you sure?” I asked, with the cautious pragmatism of adult experience.  Inside I was thinking,  They won’t win.    They’ll be disappointed.  I don’t want this fun day at the carnival to end on a sad note.  “Are you sure you don’t want to ride one of your favorite rides again?”

But the boys were emphatic.  “I’m going to win one of those animals,” said Matthew eagerly.

At the booth, the barker — a shaved-headed man with earrings, and a prominent gold tooth — welcomed them boisterously.  “You take a dart, you pop a balloon!” he said, ranging the darts invitingly on the wooden table surface.  “Even one balloon wins a prize!”   I paid my money, and the darts were ours.

Luke went first.  He picked up a dart, held it awkwardly, and — not quite understanding the concept of aim — let it fly.  (I had visions of the gold-toothed barker with a puncture wound in his head, but as a professional, I guess he knows how to get out of the way.)  It missed, so Luke tried again.  Surprise of surprise, we heard a pop! and a balloon that had been full and round was hanging in shreds.

“You win a prize!” said the barker, indicating a row of stuffed dogs.  “Which one do you want?”  Luke chose the blue doggie and hugged it to him, delighted.

Matthew took a dart.  He held it in his hand, took careful aim, and threw.  It hit the corkboard and bounced awkwardly to the ground.  “Try again!  Try again!” said the barker.

Matthew took another dart, aimed, and threw.  Once again, he fell short of the balloon.  There was one left.

“Come on, Matthew!” I said.  “You can do it!”

He took the final dart in hand and held it, nervously.  And what was only a few seconds felt like a little eternity.  I found myself concentrating so hard, praying wordlessly, with every bit of my will.  Please let him hit the balloon.  Please let him win an animal.

The force of my nervousness took me by surprise.  This wasn’t a contest of cosmic significance. If he didn’t win, it would be minor compared to the things that can and do go wrong in the world.  And yet in that moment, there seemed to be so much riding on the final throw of the dart.

Every adult knows that we don’t make it through life without disappointment.   There are hosts of little failures waiting to greet us as we progress through childhood and beyond.  Someday, when Matthew is older, there will be sports tryouts that end badly, poor grades on tests, crushes who don’t like him back.  There will be colleges that don’t accept him and jobs that go to other candidates.  I know these things will happen, and that’s why that little contest  at a carnival stand felt, suddenly, so very important.  I know there will be disappointments ahead, I thought.  Just let him have this little win.

Matthew stepped back and took aim.  I held my breath.  Half a second later, a balloon exploded with a resounding pop.

Full of glee, Matthew chose a raspberry-colored dog.  “I’m going to call him Prizer,” he told me.   Joyfully, the boys ran to find Daddy, showing off their new doggies.   I followed them, my heart full of relief and gratitude.

I’m well aware that this story could have had a different ending. That dart easily could have missed, and this would have been a blog post about helping our kids deal with their disappointments.     It would have been Matthew’s time to learn that games of chance are exactly that, and that sometimes, chance is not on our side.  It would have been a baby-step into the sad reality that not every day at the carnival has a happy ending.  Those lessons will come at various times and in different forms; we can’t avoid them, and I know that.

But I’m glad we got to postpone them just a little bit longer.

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