What follows is (Part 1 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.
I’d been spending time with Sarah every week for several months because, although smart as all get out, she was failing to thrive in the classroom. Her teacher reported that she seemed to float in a fog.
We knew her parents were in the midst of an antagonistic separation. When I met her in October, kindergarteners had just begun to learn from my supervisor, the school social worker, various methods for solving small problems on their own. At the end of an otherwise uneventful first session, Sarah asked me what to do “if you have a big problem” and identified that problem as “gwownups fighting.”
I saw her question, naturally, as an indication of her needs, and I assumed that sorting through her feelings about whatever she heard and saw at home would constitute our work together. That proved not to be the case, however. Every week, as elsewhere, she floated around the guidance office, which was large and admittedly full of distractions: a sand table, a dollhouse, puppets, games, a whiteboard with markers lined up and ready for use. Sarah seemed far more interested in, say, drawing “a potato staring at a mountain,” than in talking about her feelings. Was it my approach that was lacking?
Despite having an excellent vocabulary, Sarah often chose not to reply to my scaling question with words; when I asked her to rate her day from 1 (the worst day ever) to 5 (a truly great day), she would walk to the whiteboard to write the answer, then draw faces around it. Her playfulness, for me, lacked transparency, and each silly face, while age appropriate, seemed to take us further away from our purpose in being there. It seemed like there was nothing to catch hold of. I became preoccupied with my apparent inability to connect with her—and as a result, failed to join her where she was.
Sarah often asked me to play hangman, seeming attracted to guessing games. (“Oh, the irony,” I thought, while she drew the gallows.) Play can be a powerful form of therapy, yes, but hangman? Eager to succeed with every client, there were many times when I questioned the value of our meetings—whether our relationship was actually serving her. I discussed those feelings with my supervisor, but aware of her parents’ difficulties, we never quite reached the point of giving up.
One Monday morning in January, I asked Sarah, as usual, how she was feeling on the scale of 1 to 5, and beside her number, she made what looked like four hash marks. “What’s that?” I asked, struck by the unusual drawing. “Scratch marks from a cat,” I was told.
In a flash, an instinct (or desperation) to follow what seemed different, what seemed new, took hold of me. “A cat!” I said. “What can you tell me about that cat? What’s the story of that cat? Maybe I could write it down for you!” “Okay…” she said and followed me to the table, leaning on it and prompting me: “Chapter One.” She watched me write my own contribution: “Once upon a time.” That phrase had always held magic for me, but with Sarah, I was to experience its power as I never had before.
In that first chapter, I recorded that the cat was named Sarah, liked to play, had sharp claws that she used to scratch things, scared her classmates (which made her sad), and was the most beloved member of her family, more so than her baby sibling, who got sick on the bed and made their mother angry.
Six more chapters followed in succeeding weeks. Each time we composed one, my young client watched me take dictation, speaking word by word so I could keep up.
This is what I learned: Sarah the Cat was lonely. She thought her claws scared her classmates; she didn’t know how to make friends. She had no one to play with at school, and it wasn’t any better at home. Though half-hidden in other details to begin with, loneliness was her theme—a fact that became more explicit as time went on.
Finally one day I commented, when our bleakest chapter was done, “I have to say, I’m feeling sad for Sarah the Cat, and I would like to spend some time thinking about things that might help her.” She fixed her wide-eyed gaze on me. “Why do you want to help her?” she wanted to know. I kept to the world we’d created. “Because I care about Sarah the Cat. I know she’s just a character in a story, but I care about her.” After the slightest pause, she said, “Because it’s really me.”
Tears smarted in my eyes, but I blinked them back and replied as if I were surprised by the fact, not moved by her owning of it. “Is it you?” I asked. “You’re Sarah the Cat?” I added in a quieter voice, “Well, then, it matters even more.”
To Be Continued.
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