ONCE UPON A TIME (PART THREE)

 

What follows is (Part 3 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. (Click to catch up on Parts 1 and 2.)

When I read back the last line of their story, Sarah and Addie looked so delighted that I thought they might start jumping up and down. I felt, myself, like doing so. At the beginning of the lunch experiment, I’d had a dream in which I saw solitary Sarah playing outside with a friend. Could that dream finally be near to coming true?

“Read it again!” said the girls. So I did. Then, wanting to fortify their newfound camaraderie, I asked if they might like to have their story read aloud to the rest of their class.

Yes, said Sarah—“and the other chapters.”

She seemed determined to share her experience of kindergarten isolation, and it dawned on me that there might be a kind of “greater vision” to her fixation—certainly greater than I alone could perceive—so as a next step, with Sarah’s permission, I invited her teacher and my supervisor to join us for a private sharing of both stories.

Picture a wide-eyed little girl, seated among three adult women: I felt we were surrounding her with care, and I felt that she felt it, too. For the first time since I’d met her, it was as if I could see the whole child—not at a remove, no feint of silliness, but present, visible, and wanting love.

I was again the reader, as Sarah watched her audience of listeners: the vivacious school social worker who greeted her in the hallway every morning, and the kind teacher so clearly valuing the rare chance to give Sarah her undivided attention.

When I reached the end of the last chapter, there was silence. I’d known silence in dyads, but I think that was the first time I’d experienced a therapeutic silence within a small-group setting, and I didn’t recognize and respect it for what it was. Instead, I felt self-conscious, like the hostess of a party that had ground to a halt; I quickly offered to read the other, shorter story.

Thankfully, Sarah’s teacher and my supervisor asked if they could first express what they were feeling. They felt sad and worried, they said. Like me, they wanted to know what they could do to help. Sarah asked, again, if the story could be read to her class.

I want to pause here, creating the smallest delay in your reading, slowing down time the way it slowed for me, to register my astonishment at what my six-year-old client then attested with utter clarity.

“People need to know,” she said.

Sarah’s teacher agreed immediately, and I felt tremendous relief. What was sought would be provided, in a context that would make sense. Stories are expected in a kindergarten classroom; indeed, they possess a ritual importance. Sarah’s teacher, with decades of experience, would know what to do.

That was my cue to move on to the light-hearted tale of mischief, which everyone seemed to enjoy, with broad smiles all around. Then, because I would be leaving my internship soon, we agreed together on a plan for my supervisor to take over the act of transcription: lunches with classmates would continue, and the story project would, too. I would have one more turn with it, meeting a serious-minded Brian the Bear before regretfully ceding the magical binder and clearing out the stash of penciled drafts in my desk.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

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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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

January 21

 

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No words, today; I’m overwhelmed. Image copyrights held by me. If you enjoy this site, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for visiting.

CLEAR-EYED AND COURAGEOUS

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The end of any year, but especially this one, can feel elegiac to many. For me there is no better answer within reach, to the litany of sorrows I could name, than to offer tribute to those who’ve inspired me in the past twelve months—thankfully also a long list. Here are just two.

My first tribute is to a mother of my acquaintance. A little over a dozen years ago, she contrived an ingenious way to save some of her income from her abusive partner, so that she could escape to a women’s shelter with their infant daughter. In the process, she lost a best friend because the friend feared retaliation for any show of support to her. The experience of trauma persisted for a decade, as the man haunted her life, until at last he died of an overdose. Now, never having found time to care for herself, she makes the effort to support her daughter’s ongoing grief over losing her father, whom she had barely known, whose death meant something very different to her.

My second tribute is to a girl of my acquaintance. A daughter in a different family, she recognized her stepfather’s instability long before her mother did and looked up the signs and symptoms of abuse to educate her mother in what was happening to them. She persuaded her mother to divorce the man who would, before they left, harass and molest the girl whose clear vision saw the truth, whose courageous spirit spoke out to make change. This girl-becoming-a-woman now wants to study the brain, maybe work in child development or forensic psychology. She wants to understand things. She wants to make sense of the world.

Certainly there were dozens of men and boys this year who moved and delighted me (including one eight-year-old I know who stated recently that he is now “obsessed with Canada”; the liberal-minded among you can probably guess why). Then there are those (men, women, and algorithms) who miss the mortal glory that surrounds them, profoundly confused by marketed images: made up, airbrushed, photoshopped, contrived, assessed, judged, “had,” bought, and/or sold to the highest or nearest bidder. After the year the world has had, after the year my country has had, after the slurs we’ve all been suffered to hear uttered by persons of influence, I feel inclined to celebrate the real beauty of the women and girls whom I’m proud to have met: their strength and grace of character; their intelligence and the light they carry, kindling within every cell, every smile, every look of comprehension, every gesture of warm and real humanity.

To them and to you, Happy New Year.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

THE CLASP OF THE NECKLACE

Rainbow wall, August

 

My appointment with Tess was, unusually, at 9AM—right as the morning sunlight was angling through my prism in the window. “You’re just in time to see my pet rainbows,” I said. (I think of them that way sometimes.)

“Pet rainbows!” She ran over to kneel on the chair and held her finger beneath a hovering splotch of visible spectrum, as though holding aloft a perching butterfly. I leaned in to look with her. “It must like you,” I said.

Fanciful notions flow rather freely from me now; a few years ago, less so. I thought I might like working with kids, but felt shy and apprehensive around them. The world seemed to have changed so much since I was five, six, seven—kids seemed to be exposed to such sophisticated things. Would what had mattered to me at their age even register with them? I volunteered in a kindergarten, to put myself to the test, to see if I could find ways to relate.

One day the teacher left me in charge while she ran some errands around the school. My job as a glorified babysitter was to read Jack and the Beanstalk to the class. I did so with all the gusto I could muster, then found myself at “The End,” with no sign of the teacher returning. Without further direction, I needed to buy time. So I improvised: “Let’s be seeds,” I said. “Let’s make ourselves really small, and then we can grow up up up!”

The children immediately crouched and tucked into themselves. “Sprinkle us!” Gillian cried, and joy bloomed in me. It has continued to bloom and grow through my counseling work. Sometimes I feel as though I could climb to the clouds on its flourishing stalk.

While I like to write in celebration, though, there are umpteen moments when I get things wrong—sometimes so wrong that it’s painful. Like the time I noticed that the clasp of Tess’s necklace had slid ’round to the front. “Make a wish,” I’d said, out of habit.

Tess had been in foster care roughly one year. Her parents had neglected her and her siblings while tending their addictions; her father would die of an overdose within the week of those three words. Make a wish.

I had let myself become ungrounded in my life—busy and neglectful of contemplation.  I wasn’t fully in the moment with a little girl who needed every ounce of presence she could get. Now I carry the memory of Tess picking up that remark, which I’d dropped so casually, and holding it close. My sobering summons back to the moment came when she fixed her eyes on me. She trusted me. She asked, “Will it come true?”

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.

 

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.