I looked away to listen to another child, and when I looked back, there he was: completely drenched from tummy to toes, wiping his mouth but somehow missing the wet leaf on his chin, evidence he had tried to drink from the puddle he had obviously lain in. He looked at me, knowing he did what I have told him not to do several times, yet showing me he would do it anyway. My opinion doesn’t always matter to him, this two-and-a-half year old with a past that haunts my dreams and a pattern of being that makes sense with that past but not so much with the present as it is. We work with that fact every day, and we celebrate the moments of progress. The other moments, we just have to let be. And this was one of those.
He looked at me, and I said, ‘Please don’t play in the puddle.’ ‘All wet,’ he said. ‘Yea, you get all wet and dirty when you play in the puddle.’ And as he was about to turn to — who knows what? play in the puddle again, very likely— he saw her: lovely, sweet Sylvie, a six-year-old who can hold a conversation with an adult and share with the other children, as she was sitting and observing what I was doing. ‘Hi, Sylvie!’ he said. ‘Hi,’ she said, taking note of his sogginess and then looking at me to ask, ‘Why’d he do that?’ ‘Come on, Sylvie! Come on!’ he said, offering his hand for her to hold and follow him. ‘What is he doing?’ she asked me. ‘I think he wants to play.’ ‘I want to play with chalk,’ she said. ‘Come on! Sylvie!’ Staring at her, still trying to get her to hold his hand, still trying to get her to meet his eyes. ‘She wants to play with chalk,’ I explained. And at that, he ran off toward the garage. When he came back, he was holding chalk, but when she reached for it, he put it behind his back. We’ve been working on actually giving something when we offer it, but it is still a struggle at times. After another explanation, he ran back toward the garage and came back with more chalk. She thanked him and started drawing, and by that point, it was time for everyone to clean up and head in for lunch. ‘Bye, Sylvie!’ he said.
What kills me about this scene is how desperately he wanted her attention, how he was bending down and reaching for her hand, how he was soaked in gross rainwater but was yearning to be on her level, even while she was setting herself apart. Her look of disdain, her weak responses to his enthusiasm, her sadness and her maturity— all of it. It just kills me. She is so sweet and dealing with things I wish I could protect her from, and he is so earnest and acting out things I came too late to intervene in, and they’re both here.
Surely there’s a lesson from all of this. Maybe it’s just that I can’t protect them from everything, not even those inevitable times they’ll have wet leaves on their chins and still be crying out, ‘Look at me! Notice me! Value me!’ or those times when they will want to be anywhere but where they are and still have to find it in themselves to interact with those around them. They have to go through it all because we all have to. That’s life.
Then again, maybe the lesson is bigger. Something about kindness and connection and caring what others think and learning. Something about… people. And messes.
When I took him inside, I washed his hands, changed his clothes, and helped him get into his chair for lunch. His day went on. And so did mine.
For some of our lessons, there just aren’t words.