ONCE UPON A TIME (PART FOUR)

 

What follows is (the 4th and final part of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl. (Click to catch up on Parts 1, 2, and 3.) I chose to tell this story in parts not just to make the length more manageable, but also because it held several climactic points for me. There are two remaining.

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The meeting with Sarah, her teacher, and my supervisor fell—as mentioned in the prior installment—quite near the end of my internship. Daily I busied myself, preparing for “good goodbyes,” making memory books and hosting last lunches with kids. With only two days a week there, I wasn’t present for the sharing of Sarah’s stories with her class, but Sarah’s teacher said the other children were quiet and attentive as she read aloud the chapters that Sarah had written with me. (I can picture Sarah among them, listening with her whole being.) When it was over, according to Sarah’s teacher, various classmates shared their reactions, all of them kind. One child asked the gorgeously mature and sensitive question, “Do you really feel lonely?”

“Sometimes,” Sarah said.

Sarah had claimed her loneliness again—and this time publicly, among peers. How many of us are able to do that? How many of us “gwownups” are so undaunted, to name what we feel and admit to others what we crave? How often, moreover, are we heard? Properly acknowledged, problems have a tendency to shrink. In addition to admiration for Sarah, her class, and her teacher, I felt hope: she had said “Sometimes,” rather than “Yes.” Could it be that loneliness was gliding away from a total eclipse of her heart?

I returned to the school a week or two after my last day, to give a short presentation at a faculty meeting and turn in my keys. Unbeknownst to me, my supervisor had made a memory book for me, with messages from the kids that I had worked with. I wish I could share the photo, but Sarah is in it, standing before a whiteboard portrait of us, side by side and smiling wide, arms outstretched, fingertips almost touching. It looks like we’re embracing the world. Her message beneath the photo concludes this way: “I had fun visiting you with my friends at school.”

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A gentleman in New Zealand, with whom I’m loosely acquainted via online forums such as this, told a story once about his granddaughter, who had been taught baby sign language from birth:

“My daughter would sign every time she spoke to her daughter. My granddaughter was able to communicate quite effectively well before she could be expected to start talking. I can remember her telling me about what for her was a very traumatic experience when she was around 18 months old. She had seen their cat catch and injure a bird. The bird had been rescued, but it died shortly after. She signed the entire story, much of which I could understand. Some needed to be translated by her mother as I wasn’t fully fluent in their “baby sign,” but it was so heartbreaking to watch her little face as [she] told how the bird had died and they carefully buried it in the garden.”

We are made of stories and need to tell them. Children often need (and always deserve) our support in this. If we say, “Once upon a time,” what enlightening tales might follow?

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Barry’s sign language story can be found in the comments of this Musings of an Aspie post. Other text and image copyrights herein 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 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.

REGRESSION BENEATH THE MEAN

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I have never aspired to seek political office. Such striving wouldn’t suit me, and the work itself would likely bore me; my competitive and my reformatory energies both, I have expressed in other ways. But many nevers permit at least one aberration, and mine came in fourth grade, when at the last possible moment, I ran for class president. My platform? The ignorance of misogyny.

The otherwise unopposed candidate was a tall, somewhat stocky boy whom I remember to this day for his brush cut and his brash remarks belittling my gender. Be it classroom banter or playground bullying, he was unrelenting in his hateful attitude. I couldn’t stand it, and I couldn’t let it stand.

So I presented myself in front of my class, by the overhead projector, and made an impassioned, impromptu speech denouncing his language and behavior, asking my classmates in the most rhetorical tone, “Is this really what you want?”

How I wish I could revisit that scene and take in the view from the age that I am: the faces of my classmates in our poor parochial school, my teacher and how she reacted. That was before social media, before the highly public whisper campaigns that crush so many young spirits and regress to something well beneath the mean. I don’t know how I’d fare in our current culture. Back then, my cause triumphed in a landslide.

This past Monday night, between November 7 and November 8, I dreamed that I’d travelled back home to the Midwest, to visit the elementary school where the election that I’ve just described took place. I wanted to walk again the long, wide halls where our teachers hung our art, and the speckled black steps worn smooth as soapstone, leading up from the entrance to the main floor of classrooms and up again to the gymnasium where we congregated as a community, sharing school mass, meals, and spirit days. The stage there where, as a first-grader, I won the spelling bee, almost disqualified because I’d spelled education with a capital E, my teacher having told my class that important words get capital letters.

What I found in my dream, a dream that left me in waking tears, was that the building had been sold; the stairs I’d loved had been dismantled; and the whole thing was being renovated…as a luxury hotel.

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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 ONE)

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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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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

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“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 WITH TOUGH LOVE

The high windows were blank rectangles of daylight as the gym teacher handed down tough love. Nothing extraordinary had happened: A dimpled kindergartner had let his high spirits run free, during a non-running game. He then slipped on the smooth gym floor, fell, and banged his elbow, bringing said game to a halt—and him to tears.

He had broken a rule. No matter that he was in pain and possibly a kind of mild shock; rule-breaking was what counted to this teacher, who seemed to think the boy had gotten his just deserts. His words were chiseled like a commandment on a stone tablet. You know the small graves in cemeteries, the kind that tug at your heart? A stone tablet like that. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have no sympathy for you.” Mortal words, to my ears.

When I say the student might’ve been in shock, I mean the physical jarring when a body makes impact and the existential betrayal we feel when the world unexpectedly hurts us. For adults, the cause and effect might have been clear in this case, making the hurt smart less than it did for that boy; but children have less experience of physical laws and probabilities than do we adults. To run from sheer exuberance is to feel a great trust in life, if only in the moment; for many if not all of us, there is nothing reasonable about a fall.

I’m reminded of a scene in a drug treatment facility. It’s process group, a daily meeting that is minimally moderated by a counselor, and is a time and place for peers in the program to air their personal challenges, as well as any grievances with each other. One young man rubbed other group members the wrong way; he had a tendency to urge them to open up and share more of themselves. The week prior things had ignited when an older man forcefully asserted his right to process things in his own way, and essentially told the young man to “cut the therapy shit.” But it became clear—to me, at least—that he wasn’t really trying to play therapist, so much as trying to make the group feel safer to him. The more the other men shared, the more he could.

So, one week later: the young man was sitting in a different seat, and seemed to be buried deep within himself. He was set to graduate, which can be an anxious time. Was he ready for it—for life? The subject of childhood came up, raised by one of the women, and he told a story about a game he played with his mom when she was in the kitchen, wherein he’d mischievously steal scraps of food and she’d lovingly scold him not to eat before dinner. Then his stepfather came in and, oblivious to their play, laid down the law. The young man broke down in the telling, sobbing two decades’ worth. “He beat the fun out of me,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel joy.” Even while he was crying, his jaw was clenching, muscles working, trying to hold back the tears.

I’m not meaning to equate the first scenario with the second—a one-time incident of punitive dispassion with what would become ongoing abuse—but not because small moments don’t matter in big ways. Small moments matter enormously. They are cellular; they constitute us.

 

 

* I’ll try to address the subject of compassionate discipline in a future post. Among the good and relevant books there are to consult, I can recommend The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen.