Archive for July, 2018

What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

amywink July 19th, 2018

When I was in college, my summer job was day care. Aside from the excruciating tension headaches I also experienced with the job, I loved it because I enjoy playing with the children. I just liked them, partly because they can be a lot of fun, but also because they are often ready to be present in a way that adults don’t often allow themselves to be. Children just like you to be who you are and I like being with people like that, even if they are new people.

When I was in graduate school, I had a second job working at a church nursery where another friend worked. In the middle of the rigorous intellectual pursuit of my PhD, I got to play with babies and toddlers. It was great, very grounding, except on the days when more than one child was Not Happy and Not Going to Have Any of This, though really, I could always sympathize. Who has not felt like screaming their head off some days? There were really amazing moments too, like the time I watched a two-year old just work on figuring out how to put the nesting animals in the right order so they all fit back inside the cow. It took him a while but I was watching his brain grow and it was amazing. Watching someone learn is fascinating if you understand what you are watching. I now know so much more about brain development and the neuroscience of learning and as that child put those pieces together, his brain was forming new pathways, making neurons fire, creating insight and understanding, growing his brain. Every “ah-hah” moment we have as humans is actually a neuron firing and making a new pathway of understanding. Brains are really cool. And children are always learning and I love learning with them. I’ve joked with friends that I am very popular with the three-year old set and it has always been very grounding when I hang out with children.

Going back to church has brought children back into my life and reminded me of the fun I used to have at the church nursery during graduate school. It’s fun to hang out with the future. Watching the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, also served to remind me how I learned to present with children, and what a challenge when they ask really hard questions, like “are you ever afraid of the dark?” or “why do people get sick?” Sometimes, if you really listen, they remind you of things that are so deeply human, your heart will break wide open.

I’ve been thinking of one of those moments recently, given the news these days. I don’t shut off the memory because it’s the memory of how I learned, yet again, to be present, as a person, as a teacher, as a human being. There was one child (there’s always one) at the church nursery who was a handful, frustrated, and prone to episodes of anger. She was two when I started working there and was somewhat infamous. But she liked me and I liked her so we got along, though not like the two children for whom I eventually became the favorite baby-sitter. When Bethany finally learned to talk, it became clear that her frustration had simply stemmed from not being able to explain what she was thinking, which was quite a lot. Once she was talking, she was fascinating, engaging, and not nearly as difficult to deal with. Once she knew how to speak her feelings, she enjoyed life a lot more (and we are all so glad!) She was also delightfully bossy and assertive, acting much more mature than she actually was. It was endearing. But she could still throw a tantrum if she needed too and her emotions were still very close to the surface. Her bold air also made people forget she was still new and working out her way in the world.

One evening, I was engaged to babysit my regulars and Bethany was added to the evening, which was entirely manageable. Except, when she and her family arrived, it was obvious no one had told her she’d be staying behind, and I could see the betrayal on her face, the fear, and then the anger at the betrayal. I am, and was then, a person sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, and I knew what I was watching and I was also becoming angry, as I always do, when I see people ignore the feelings of another, or, worse, intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. And when that person is a child, I am both shredded and outraged. It is the double-edged sword of my compassion. I’m not much of a gatekeeper but if you want righteous anger on your behalf, I’m right there. Some friends have accidentally hit that button and some friends have gotten exactly what I have to give in moments when they needed it.

But Bethany was just four and an outraged adult is not what any four-year-old needs in her face at the moment when she is overwhelmed by her own anger and fear. As she raged at the door her parents exited, I sat with Emily and Alex, the other two children, who were also trying their best to figure out how to react to the episode. Emily, who was quite mature and sophisticated at 5, looked at me and assessed the situation before she pronounced, “She’s just being a baby.” It was a test, for her, for me. I responded, “No, she’s very angry. I think she has to be angry for a little while.” And I left it at that while we settled into our evening together.

Nothing major happened. Bethany eventually calmed down. We all watched a movie and the night got later and later. I put Emily and Alex to bed but there wasn’t any bed for Bethany, so we sat on the couch together and started talking, like friends do late into the night. I cannot recall what we talked about exactly, probably the movie, but I remember how present we were, how close to each other. Then, we got to the heart of the matter and in our quiet conversation together, Bethany said “Sometimes when my mommy goes away, I get really scared.” I responded like a friend should, “I know. It’s really scary when that happens.” It was the right answer. She paused then she crawled onto my lap, draped her arms around my neck, sank her body into mine and held on for a long time, until she fell asleep. I held on too as my heart broke wide open to hold her.

The Question

amywink July 1st, 2018

On the floor
with this beautiful child
of my old friend,
I am so much in love
with her entire being,
in joy of her existence,
when she lifts her finger
to tap my arm and asks
“Are you white?”
and I am shot through
by the difference she
already knows is somehow
important, too much so
for her small being,
who at three, is figuring out
the world in which she lives.
I do not want to answer,
but I must answer
carefully, and in my answer
shift the question, expand
the differences so she
might see something
wider, something broader
something larger than the
either or she has already
noticed because of
her own difference
and I say “well, beige really”
and I show her the colors
of my skin on which her
finger continues to rest
as she ponders while
I breathe, hoping my
answer is a good one
for the time being,
knowing that it
also may not last,
thinking I must
make it last.