I'm always caught flat-footed at the beginning of each school year when the first virus comes to visit our preschool. This year, it arrived in the form of hand foot and mouth disease (HFMD), a common childhood illness that causes discomfort in the form of blisters on the aforementioned hands, feet and mouth, but with very few real dangers attached to it. The fact that it has only so far turned up in a single child doesn't mean it hasn't spread throughout the community in the form of worry.
Like with the Swine Flu (H1N1) last September, parents are understandably concerned, some overly so, but who can blame them? Most of us knew little about the illness and we're talking about our "babies." It certainly sounded more exotic that a run-of-the-mill cold or flu. So, in spite of the relative harmlessness of this particular viral illness, we, as a community, spent a couple days in a bit of a tizzy as we learned what it was all about. And, as we do every year in the aftermath of our first virus, we've settled back into a place where we're all talking about the importance of hand washing (if you click on this link, please make sure the read the excellent comments as well, especially the one from my sister Amy at the very bottom, whose take on preschool hand washing I agree with entirely).
You see, that's the genius of a virus like the one that causes HFMD. It takes advantage of one of our basic human drives: the need to touch one another with our hands. And while most viral illness can also be transmitted via airborne means, they are most often passed from person to person through our hands. You see, pure genius: taking advantage of one of the most beautiful parts of being human to make us sick.
This is a particularly vexing challenge for a preschool, where physical touch is central to the curriculum whether we like it or not. It's simply what young children do -- and it's what we adults do when we're with them.
At the end of our Pre-3 day, the children always, without prompting from me, surge forward to give me a hug. The first time it happened, I was surprised and flattered, but I've come to learn that it really has nothing to do with me in particular: it's simply the children expressing a sense of connection or community or gratitude or love or whatever that thing is that drives us to lay our hands on other people.
Whenever I sit down for a moment, little hands are suddenly on every part of my body, instinctively caressing me, playing with my hair, fiddling with my fingers, poking, prodding, using me for support, sitting on my lap. Many of the children have learned I like to have my back scratched, so there's often quite a bit of that (a talent I hope their parents get to appreciate at home).
Their hands are always all over one another as well, holding hands, wrestling, sharing.
There is a lot research out there demonstrating the evolutionary basis for needing to touch and be touched. We all know, for instance, that if a baby isn't touched enough, even if its other basic necessities are handled, it will just roll over a die. But, I don't need any more evidence than what I receive every day in the classroom in the form of those little hands. Touching and being touched, I'm convinced, are as vital to our survival as food, air and water.
Of course, this is easy to remember when we're working with young children. Viruses be damned, we aren't going to stop because the benefits, even at the price of blisters on our hands, feet and mouth, far outweigh the cost.
As I move around the classroom, I often don't even notice that my hand is on a child's shoulder as she paints, or on the small of his back as he leans over a puzzle. In fact, being a cooperative preschool, with lots of the children's parents in the room working with me, I'm often startled to find my hand is unconsciously resting on one of their shoulders or backs (and once a butt -- sorry John). And in spite of how inappropriate that would be in most circumstances, no one has ever called me out on it at preschool.
And isn't in a shame that so many of us "outgrow" touching? I suppose as we become adults, touch becomes sexualized and many of us reserve it for that, or we fear that our hand on another person's shoulder will be misinterpreted as sexual, and often it is. So we grow cautious, not wanting to be misunderstood, reserving our hands for family and trusted friends, offering only handshakes to everyone else.
Maybe that's why I'm so proud of having helped to found the Superhuggers, our group of be-caped adults who boldly dispense hugs to strangers at public events, most notably the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade. And maybe that's why I'm so reluctant to give it up, even though its impact as performance art waned long ago. I recall the build-up to our first foray into recklessly laying our hands on strangers. We worried we'd get slugged, we worried we'd be groped, we worried we'd be sued, we worried we'd contract every virus known to man. We had no idea what we were getting into. We came up with all kinds of strategies for identifying the people who were "open" to a hug and avoiding the ones who might slug, grope or sue.
At the end of that first parade, we sat together on the slope of the grassy hill at the center of Gasworks Park, glowing from the experience of having hugged 12,000 strangers. And while there had been a certain amount of low-level groping, no one had been slugged, and there had only been a handful of people who declined our advances. And while those concerns had been the focus of our conversations prior to the parade, they were now mere incidentals to the stories each of us had about the connections we made with our fellow humans. Sharing physical touch with hundreds of strangers is a feeling like no other. It makes me feel bigger, stronger, and connected. There is no way anyone could go through that experience and not come away loving your fellow man.
And yes, several of the Superhuggers finished off June with runny noses and coughs, an exceedingly small price to pay.
I certainly don't wish blisters on the hands, feet and mouth of anyone. We will strive to be vigorous in adhering to Woodland Parks' common sense hand washing policies and procedures. But that's the best we can do, because not touching one another is simply out of the question.