ONCE UPON A TIME (PART TWO)

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What follows is (Part 2 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. To catch up on Part 1, click here.

The day that “Sarah the Cat” laid claim to her human loneliness, I formulated a plan: she could invite one classmate each week to have lunch with us in the guidance room, which for kindergarteners holds no stigma and instead represents a treat. Sarah might gain some status among her peers, and lunch might naturally segue into companionship at recess.

The boy she chose for her first guest was shy and sweet but not the best bet for an aide-de-camp in the project, accompanied by a paraprofessional in case he felt overwhelmed. Sarah’s teacher suggested the next invitee, a girl whose confidence proved unhelpful, with a domineering quality that crowded out the native empathy she might have possessed. Our third guest seemed like a Goldilocks choice—generous, polite, just right!—but nothing came of it.

Not socially gifted myself, in vain I struggled to make small talk that would help the kids learn about each other; like an awkward matchmaker, I even asked about favorite playground games. Sarah gave me a look at one point, and I wondered if I was being too obvious. Despite my efforts on her behalf, there was no sign of a shift—she still floated through her days disconnected.

Meanwhile, Sarah and I kept our Monday morning meetings. The day before our fourth Tuesday lunch, I had brought in all her chapters, typed from my longhand transcriptions and organized in their own slim binder. My internship at the school would be ending relatively soon, and creating books with and for kids was part of the process of saying goodbye. The chapters looked impressively official, dressed up thus. Sarah asked that I reread them to her; she seemed to enjoy hearing even the hardest parts.

The next day I walked down to rendezvous with Sarah and Addie, aka Guest Number 4. We gathered lunch trays, straws, utensils, and assorted condiments, and climbed the stairs, the kindergarteners’ knees bobbing high to accommodate the rise of each step, their trays held carefully aloft. So far, so familiar—but Sarah cast me into the unknown the moment we entered the office. “Could you please get my book and wead it?” she asked, the lost r tugging my heartstrings, while Addie preceded us to the table. “You want me to read it—out loud?” I clarified, hoping I’d misunderstood. “Yes, please,” she said.

What was I going to do? I looked over at Addie, concentrating on her carton of milk, plucking her straw from its cellophane wrapper. How could I subject that curly-headed naïf so unexpectedly to a tale of unremitting loneliness? Over pizza sticks and a small heap of syrupy fruit, no less? I was not thinking fast enough and grasped at a fib. “I’m not sure I have it with me,” I said, pretending to search my backpack. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” I felt conflicted about the now-outright lie—but there it was.

She persisted, asking me in that case to say it from memory. Again, I demurred. Then came the flash, the genuine inspiration. “What if we write a new chapter today? To a different story?” One thought led to the next. “Maybe Addie can help—if she wants.”

My enthusiasm for the idea was initially unshared. “Okay,” Sarah said. “But can you bring it next time? It’s important.” It’s important. “Alright,” I said. I’d bought myself a little time, but I knew I couldn’t ignore those words. I seated myself across from the girls, pencil at the ready. First we established our new character. Who would Addie like to be? She chose readily.

“Once upon a time, Sarah the Cat and Addie the Easter Bunny…” It was lovely to see both girls giggle at that. Sarah led off from there, but Addie caught right up. As they built their story detail by detail, they looked at each other for affirmation, grinning as they dreamed up mischief.

The plot unfolded as follows: They were at a picnic but wandered away from their blanket, landing them in hot water with their parents, who followed their trail, found them, and condemned them to their rooms with no dinner. Confining myself to prompts up till then, I volunteered a last line: “What a terrible way for a picnic to end!” The girls, together, approved.

To Be Continued.

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DOWN DEEP

Lemon 3

 

The following vignette is drawn from my time volunteering in a kindergarten.

P, five years old, was normally well behaved—self-regulating, in clinical parlance. His classmate C, whom the teacher considered too young for school, might interrupt proceedings by pounding on his tiny chest and belting out a Tarzan imitation; P, sturdier and more mature, knew how to listen. He stayed “in the zone.”

On this particular day, though, something had gotten into him. At story time, sitting on the fringes, P turned his back to the teacher and kicked his shoes repeatedly against the carpet, beating a sullen tattoo. Several times I spoke to him about this. “It’s easier to concentrate when your eyes are on the teacher,” I whispered. I put a guiding hand on his shoulder. He obliged by turning his body partway toward the rest of the group but kept his eyes to the ground.

This behavior was so aberrant for P as to raise a question in my mind. But the question faded as the day progressed, each activity succeeding the one before, the writing of names and the cutting of paper with round-tipped scissors. Snack time, with its boasts and juice boxes, came and went. The declarations of one child inevitably stirred up an overlapping chorus of voices, all seeking attention. Consequently, P’s strange behavior slipped from my thoughts.

Later in the day, the teacher asked me to work one-on-one with the kids, on a color project, and I found myself across from P, at the world’s smallest work table, holding out a yellow crayon and asking him to draw a lemon.

He wouldn’t take the crayon. “I can’t,” he said. Snub-nosed with freckles, he stuck out his lip. Again, I was surprised. “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can,” I said. “You can draw all kinds of shapes. You know what a lemon looks like—it’s like a flat circle with pointy ends!” I was not persuasive. He raised his voice a little: “I caaan’t!” Hmm. “Look,” I said, “What if I draw one first, and you copy me?” (This worked sometimes with kids.) Strike three. “Noooo,” he wailed, “I caaaannnn’t!”

Because I’d come to recognize that children don’t fuss “just because,” I decided to take a more direct approach. “Are you having a bad day, P?” I asked. “No!” he said petulantly. “Oh,” I said, “really? It kind of seems to me like maybe you are. I noticed that earlier, and I’ve been wondering why.” I tried to pause a little, to give him some space. “Does your head hurt?” He continued to focus on his own middle distance. No, he didn’t have a headache. “Okay, so it’s not your head. That’s good. Does your stomach hurt?” No, his stomach didn’t hurt.

Then in a rush, his eyes grew red and filled with tears. “I miss my mom!”

I’d had a growing inkling that something like this was at work, yet I was, again, surprised—this time by the force of his anguish, so powerful, so vulnerable, yet buried all day long. Like a grown man, he might have kept it to himself.

What I’d been seeing in him were nascent coping mechanisms, based on denial. He would have made it home, and it’s possible that that would have sufficed. It’s possible that not even his mom would come to know that he’d struggled all day. Unless something particularly memorable happened, the day would be forgotten. He would grow older, taller, physically stronger, lean muscle replacing the softer flesh of early childhood. This day in kindergarten, when he so much missed his mom, might not “matter.”

It’s my belief, however, that we carry our untended pains within us. As children, we adapt coping mechanisms that shield us when we have few other means to do so, but that often prove to be maladaptive later in life. Some of us can barely confess the things that mean the most to us, that most shape our interior lives and, consequently, our relationships. We may not know how much we have to express, having taught ourselves ignorance of such things; but even knowing, we can feel helpless to act. I speak from experience.

The concept of therapy in our culture is burdened with many cliches; one such, often condescending, is the idea of “rambling” to someone about one’s childhood. How foolish and sad we are, societally, to mock our own deepest needs. It’s a powerful thing, to begin to find relief, after years, maybe decades, of denial. Everyone deserves to be nurtured as a child—however old he or she may be.

On this day, I was able to help P. I told him I was sorry he was having a hard time. I told him I could see the clock from where I was sitting, and I knew there was just an hour left to go. I told him I thought his mom was lucky to have such a loving little boy. A few more statements of that kind, and his tears cleared without falling. I asked if he thought he could draw a lemon for me. He said, “Okay!” And he did.

I’d met this boy’s mother; I knew he was cherished and provided for. He had a wonderful teacher and attended what is widely considered a fine elementary school. At its most pinched, its resources far exceed those of any number of schools in this country, as profiled by Jonathan Kozol in “Savage Inequalities.”

P had had one bad day in the time that I’d known him. And that single day’s pained emotions led him to feel a lack of self-efficacy: “I can’t do it.” The tiniest errant seeds can find quick purchase and grow deep roots.

“WHY IS THAT A FEAT?”

Lucky Apple

I’ll say it again: I love the directness of children.

Sometimes it provides comic relief, as when, one September not too long ago, the school principal visited the kindergarten classroom where I used to volunteer, to greet the matriculating pupils. A little blond boy, who would become a favorite of mine, studied him quizzically—head cocked, hand on his chin—musing as if half to himself, “I wonder what happened to all of your hair…” The principal’s shiny pate flushed, and he seemed to choke on his words, but gamely he replied that he didn’t know, either.

Often a child’s candor is a refreshing change from the subterfuge of adults, with our emotional trench coats and back alleys, to say nothing of political doublespeak. Tikes playing with trains are the real conductors on the so-called Straight-Talk Express. (There are exceptions, of course, as I’ve acknowledged before.)

Last year I worked with a boy who’d been held back for issues that had been labeled “ADHD.” His family life was chaotic* from morning till night and undermined our therapeutic work during in-home visits in the same way, I’m guessing, that it limited his ability to do homework and engage in his own development. A meeting with faculty and staff at his locally notorious school demonstrated nothing so much as their lack of comprehension for his circumstances.

He and I had one precious office visit—our first visit, before transportation became a problem for his mom. I learned so much! We did one of my favorite focusing activities: I asked him to close his eyes while I struck my singing bowl, then raise his hand when he couldn’t hear its fading resonance anymore.** Then, I asked him to do the same thing, except this time when he could no longer hear the bell, he was to listen for anything else he could hear around him, and raise his hand when he was ready to report back.

I’m not taking authorial license to say that I’ve rarely seen such a look of concentration as on that boy’s face in the sanctuary of the office.

I was surprised and impressed to learn from him that there was more than one clock in the room; I had never noticed. (It wasn’t my space.) He was perfectly still and observant, without evincing the slightest self-consciousness. After, he spoke offhandedly of his excellent hearing. I exclaimed over his ability, in a different exercise, to shift his awareness from the top of his head to his right baby toe, such that both parts grew tingly in turn in response to being noticed; I called it a feat. After I’d defined the word for him, his response was, “Why?” What was so extraordinary? Graciously he seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a feat because it involves executive function. Because that’s an important way to use the brain. Because that’s the very area in which he was considered weak. Because, in fact, many of us barely notice our creaturely existence in this world, except in the most obvious ways. Because, because, because—so many possible answers. But really—why, indeed? It was a good question.

Speaking of feats, the apple pictured above was plucked from the orchard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And it was good—tannic and tart. A worthy reminder of many life lessons: a spindly trunk, and branches just laden with fruit.

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*This is a capsule version of his situation, written from my outsider’s perspective, and should—in fairness to his mom especially—be read and understood as such. No piece of writing, however careful, ever tells or ever can tell the full tale. Not that I was endeavoring to, clearly; but I’m conscious of taking a liberty when writing about anyone but myself, and it matters to me to note that, as a caveat.

**I can’t claim to have invented this awesome activity. I think it’s fairly common in the world of mindfulness, but I know that Susan Kaiser Greenland describes it nicely in her book, The Mindful Child.