Years after my childhood, I returned to the school I once attended. The rooms of the building were empty and cool, the tiled hallways vacant. A musty smell lingered in closets and in corners of classrooms. My feet sounded loud on the floor.
When I was young, small bodies that seemed large to me sat in rowed desks, and teachers that seemed sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, surveyed us. One teacher had a crisp voice and a classroom control methods as fair and as firm as a ruler. I could not bear to look her in the eye. Another teacher was soft, unassuming. She brought her boyfriend to visit, and he put a tick on the ground—someone had found it on their body—and pulverized it beneath his twisting boot. He was tall and had a longish nose. I never forgot him, or her either, since she was my favorite teacher.
The world was real when I was young. Visiting later, I almost remembered that world and how it was to stand beneath scuffed blue shelves and empty hooks. Living lunchboxes used to line those shelves, each lunchbox possessing both a personality and an owner. My own lunchbox was tin and had a curved lid and metal buckles that clasped, like an old man’s lunch box—all the other children had square plastic lunch boxes with pictures of popular characters on them. My lunch box was a relic from the kitchen cupboard. I hated it at first. But Dad, who understood something about children, decorated it with stickers of every shape and size, and it became my favorite.
The trees lived in those days, too. Seeing them years later, I was surprised by a memory of a world where every object, every room, had a character on a level with a person. I had forgotten what that world was like. In my memories, the trees speak.
As an adult, the world is flat, and my mind rules it. Tables are just tables. Chairs are just chairs. I once heard of a class that adults can take to experience again what life is like for a child. They sit at a large table with their head just above its flat surface and realize how small you feel when you see the world at that level. As adults, we forget.
Recently, I saw a child run in from playing, crying over a fall he’d had. “Stop crying,” said his father, without raising a hand to comfort or hug. “Stop crying,” said his mom. Their entire goal seemed to be to make the child an adult, to raise him from the plane where scraped knees matter to the plane where scraped knees are an inconvenience, unworthy the tears of a man.
Have they forgotten the tender place that is childhood? Maybe children have become flies to them, to be brushed away with a broad sweep of the tail and returned as full-grown, useful herd animals with every emotion in place.
Another father, when his daughter began sobbing after a minor dust up, squatted down beside her, looked into her eyes. “Were you hurt, or did it just scare you?” he asked, trying to understand her emotions. In his comforting arms, she quieted.
Oh, to be parents, to be teachers, like that: to remember what it is to be a child and to relate on a level they can understand. Don’t brush off their fears, their questions, their tears, their imaginings. To children, the world is real.
CONTRIBUTOR: Lucinda J Miller