Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

I will love you forever

Can I play it?

Sure. This was my Grandma’s piano. She let me play it when I was little like you.

I’m not little. I’m a BIG girl.

Oh, sorry. I meant when I was a big girl like you.

How do I find the white part?

The keys? You just open the lid. Here, I’ll help you.

I am going to play a song for you.

Really? For me? What’s it called?

It is called “I Love Your Heart.” [playing] [Ballad feel] [singing] I love your heart, your heart. I love and love and love your hearrrrt …

That is so beautiful. [sniffling]

I have another song.

You do?

[nodding] Yes. This one is “I Will Love You Forever.” [Slowly, freely] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrrrr…

[instrumental] [rocking small body in time]

{I love YOUR little heart, and …}

Hey Franna. [still playing and rocking]

Yes?

Can I live here with you until I am a hundred and nine? [pause]

Oh, I … um, that’s a really long time.

Is it forever?

Well, no. Forever is longer.

[nodding] [playing] [a tempo] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrr …

{I know one thing, Little Big Girl}

{I.Will. Love. You. Forever.}

Little girl blowing bubbles

Ever wish you could keep a small child safe and innocent forever? It’s a wish as ethereal as bubbles in the wind, drifting away like childhood itself. I took this photo last summer. It’s taken this long to figure out how to convey what I felt.

Little girl

blowing bubbles

in the sun

free of troubles

How they drift

on the breeze

turning, turning

as they please

Colors shimmer

ever bright

just a moment

in the light

Wave your wand

my temporary

iridescent

bubble fairy

All too soon

time shall pass

bubbles pop

in the grass

How I wish

things could stay

idyllic as

this summer day.

Oddball gift

I watch them each afternoon, bringing odds and ends out of their bookbags.

They’re a pretty orderly group, these third, fourth, and fifth grade students seated in the auditorium for carpool dismissal, so I don’t tell them to put the stuff away. Instead, I take note of what they have in their hands.

Some of them are holding books and reading—a delight to my heart.

Some are doing homework—I don’t blame them for getting a head start.

Some are drawing—and I’m astounded by their artistic ability.

Some are writing, occasionally beckoning me to come over and listen as they read it aloud or to ask me a question, and I sigh: All’s right with the world.

Many are playing with slime.

They learned how to make it in science a couple of months back. The kids took the recipe home, altered it, and have taken slime to dazzling new heights. They bring their latest concoctions to school in Ziploc bags, plastic containers, even small glass jars.

First someone came with glow-in-the-dark slime, which, I concurred, is extremely cool.

This progressed to the creation of fluorescent slime. Then glitter slime; one sparkling turquoise batch reminded me of the ocean. Then a shimmery magenta glitter slime containing iridescent beads, which, I am not kidding, was beautiful; it was as supple and stretchy as any other slime. Fascinating.

But perhaps the oddest thing of all was non-slime: Some kind of ball being shaken by a girl. I could see green glitter swirling inside and something else floating . . .

I went over for a better look: “Is that . . . an eyeball in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the girl, giggling. She handed it to me.

I shook it, because, clearly, that is what one should do with a clear rubber ball filled with fluid, green glitter, and a garish bloodshot eyeball.

“Wild,” I laughed, handing it back.

And the girl said, “No, you can keep it.”

“Ummmm, but, it’s your, er, glittery eyeball . . . thing. Thanks but I would, ah, hate to take it from you.”

She grinned. “It’s okay. I have a whole bunch of them at home.”

I opened my mouth to ask WHY just as her number came up and she left me standing there holding this . . . object. The eyeball floated benignly in the fluid as glitter settled to the bottom. The bright blue iris stared right at me. So odd.

Oddball.

What possible purpose could there be for having ‘a whole bunch’ of these things at home? I wondered. Then, instantaneously: Yeah, there’s a story in that, for sure.

Furthermore, I have learned that when the universe gives you a gift—or when a fifth-grader gives you a glittery eyeball toy—you should just accept it.

And so this gift graces my desk at school, awaiting the moment of its destiny, when an eyeball floating in a sea of green glitter is exactly what is needed.

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Tale of two chocolates

Last night I was privileged to have guests, one of whom is a three-year-old girl.

While seated at the dinner table, my son’s Valentine stash on the counter caught her eye.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a giant Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in red foil.

“Chocolate,” we told her.

“I want it!” she said.

“No, that’s too much chocolate,” said her mom.

Our little visitor looked at my husband (for support? For overruling authority?). She maintained solemn poise for a few seconds: “Mom says no.”

Then her mouth quivered and her blue eyes went watery.

Poor brave baby, I thought. Trying to accept ‘no’ is so hard.

Her mom got up and reached into the candy basket. “Wait, here’s a little one. You can have this little chocolate, okay?”

The watery eyes brightened: “A tiny one? I can have a tiny one?”

“Sure,” smiled her mom, handing over the regular-sized Kiss.

Small, chubby fingers nimbly divested this Kiss of its pink foil. But the child didn’t eat it. She studied it, then observed: “It’s a baby.”

The rest of us chuckled.

Our small visitor pointed back to the big Kiss and told my son: “I want to see it!”

“Okay,” he obliged. He got up from the table and fetched the giant chocolate.

“Open it! Open it!” demanded the girl, bouncing up and down in her chair.

Her mother looked hesitant as my son unwrapped it: “Just look—you’re not going to eat it, okay?”

As soon as the foil fell away, our little visitor’s face glowed. “It’s the mama!” She held the little Kiss up to the big Kiss: “Here’s your baby.” Wiggling the little Kiss, she said: “Hi, Mama! I missed you.”

As the rest of us dissolved in laughter, a grin spread across the child’s winsome face. She promptly ate the “baby” Kiss and went back to eating her dinner while my own thoughts enveloped me, momentarily drowning out the grown-up conversation.

The beauty, the lightning-quickness of a very small child’s mind, stirring, brimming, spilling over into a narrative with which she identifies, a defining of her world—a child, in fact, who hasn’t been verbal for very long. Easy to dismiss as a simple spur-of-the-moment burst of imagination, but in reality, it’s so much more. This is understanding at its finest, coming naturally through play, through story.

Oh, to bottle it . . . no. Never that. Oh, to open it, let it breathe, let it steep, becoming ever more potent each day, invincible against time and factors that will systematically dilute and evaporate it. Imagination, play, story, the core of who we are from our very beginning . . . the Mama Kiss.

—How we miss you.

Calling The Roll

Old telephone

Vintage rotary dial desk telephone. Joe HauptCC BY-SA

Kindergarten is fun.

Most of the time.

We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.

One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.

The other turtle stays in one spot.

We try tapping his behind.

He won’t move.

“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.

I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar. 

I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.

But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.

And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.

My favorite part is the rocking boat.

It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.

“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “

Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.

It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.

In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes. 

I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.

I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.” 

Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.

I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.

The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.” 

Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.

But then is the worst part of kindergarten.

“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”

Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . .  unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.

We all go to our seats without a sound.

What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.

She’s going to call The Roll.

Is The Roll like The Police?  What will The Roll do to us? 

Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?

Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.

I am scared.

I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.

*******

It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.

Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.

What a relief.

It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).

My takeaways from this trip back in time:

-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever?  She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”

-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy.  Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.

-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?

-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness.  While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.

I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.

Maybe. Maybe not.

What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.

Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?

It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.

And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.