I often feel that relatively little separates me from the children and young people with whom I’ve worked. I mean, at heart, where it matters. Certainly there is a yawning cultural chasm, given (just for example) my lack of interest in social media, my preference for hardbound books over digital platforms, and my cellphone preserved from the early aughts, whose only graphic is the charming and apropos glyph of a sun when a text arrives. (Emoti-what? Meme who? #Huh?)
Relating to kids’ imaginations and emotions tends to come to me pretty naturally, for the most part. I don’t have to stretch to remember how significant small things can feel, and how near events can continue to seem, after the fact. I form strong associations, such as the patch of sidewalk in my neighborhood that will now always be the place where I found, while walking at dawn, a dead bat—its tiny, perfect, brown-velvet face as composed and intelligent as the features of a sleeping newborn person.
It’s easy for me to forget, however, how different time feels to those at different stages of their lives, and when I’m recollected, it’s often abrupt, like a dunk under water, à la that old carnival game. Where you’re sitting, just smiling at the crowd, on a plank that gives way if someone cranks a pitch and hits the target?
When I lent my ancient cellphone to Willa to use as a timer for the doll she sent “to the naughty chair for ten minutes, one for each year of her life!”—well, I could scarcely comprehend her fidgety impatience. The smirking, pig-tailed, yarn-haired blond poppet went scot-free in less than two! Ten must’ve seemed monumental.
Then there was the occasion when a sixteen-year-old boy helpfully explained the “rule of thumb” (an unintentional pun on his part, as you’ll see) that “if you’re texting a girl and don’t ask her out within 48 hours, you automatically get friendzoned.” Said boy was heartbroken because he lost the love of his life (whom he had known a month) after three weeks of dating. Three weeks later, he still pined for her.
Now, I purposely chose not to put quotes around a certain phrase (or phrases) in the preceding sentences, though it seems they made his parents roll their eyes, because I don’t want to belittle his inaugural experience of romantic bonding and attachment. For the same reason, I called nothing he said into question, at least not during that first confessional conversation, and later only delicately. The strength and longevity of his feelings were for him to discover, hopefully under happier circumstances. Therapy—however personally valuable it may prove to be for the therapist, with its many revelations—is not about the therapist, it’s about the client.
Not to mention, trying to explain what it’s like to be older, to someone younger? How love can endure and discover new strength? And yet, simultaneously, how wasted time is gone—at least in this carbon-dated dimension—forever? Forget it; mere words. An abstract concept in a concrete world. So I’ll end with what I couldn’t say to him: The famed urgency of youth has nothing on the urgency of aging. Peace can come, but so can a painful awareness.
Perhaps one’s sense of time is just a matter of proportion, an emotional theory of relativity underpinning and shaping our lives. From my current vantage, three weeks of pining seems like a walk in the park. But I can imagine a day seeming an eon to me again.