I'm currently in Iceland, taking part in an incredible weeklong conference called Play Iceland. I fully intend to share some of my stories with you here on the blog, but sadly, it will have to wait until next week when I'm back home because I'm unable to get my new electronic devices to communicate with one another, leaving my photographs trapped on my phone, and, quite frankly, I'm unwilling to waste any of my precious time here trying to figure it out.
That said, there is one story I must share with you.
On Monday, a group of us were visiting a small preschool for the day. Over the course of the visit, happy, curious children had, naturally, approached me with information and questions and, unless one of their teachers was nearby to translate or the context was obvious, I was left to smile, shrug, laugh or otherwise attempt to convey my lack of comprehension as well as appreciation and warmth. It's a frustration that all of us here for Play Iceland have shared in one way or another.
Near the end of our visit, I stepped into a room where I found a clutch of children sitting together on the floor. Again, they attempted to draw me in with what were clearly inquiries, and, purely because I was out of ideas, I began to sing. Specifically, I began to sing a song called "Mother Gooney Bird," a silly song accompanied by exaggerated full-body gestures. They sat and listened to my show. By the time I was done, several more kids had come in to see what was going on. The children called for an encore, so this time I indicated I wanted them to join me, which they did eagerly. I was so thrilled with having finally made a genuine connection that I launched into another song, and then another. By the end, there were at least a dozen children singing and dancing with me, along with the rest of my Play Iceland cohort, taking part in the sort of circle time we typically share back home. We might well still be at it were we not finally cut off by the arrival of the bus to take us foreigners back to our hotel.
It was exhilarating, I'm certain the children enjoyed themselves, and I don't think their proper teachers were too upset with me. That evening, however, as I lay in bed reflecting on the day, I began to feel a bit stupid. I mean, here I had come all this way to learn from another culture, but had instead sort of imposed my own culture on them in a selfish act of preschool imperialism. I made a vow that I would henceforth stick to my role as observer.
During yesterday's preschool visit, as hard as it was, I strove to remain aloof, without, of course, being unfriendly. I was quiet, stuck to the walls and corners, and took notes in my little notebook. I made it through lunch with this stance, tall and reflective, chatting with teachers when they approached me, but otherwise trying to understand how things worked at this school. At one point, however, a group of three 5-year-olds took notice of me as I stood on the playground. They whispered together for a moment, then walked in my direction in a row. As they approached, they said together, "Good morning, good morning, good morning," then ran off to giggle. Clearly they had been told enough about me to know I spoke English. After more whispering, they returned, saying, "Yes, yes, yes." It was a charming game, clearly designed to find a way to connect with me. I was quite touched and so, because I'm not a complete jerk, began repeating their English language words to them, smiling, and saying, "Tag," which I know means "thank you" in Icelandic.
After several rounds of this, however, in the spirit of my vow, I bid them "Good bye," then began to walk to another part of the playground.
They followed me, saying, "Good bye, good bye, good bye," not yet ready for our game to end.
I smiled, I waved, I said, "Tag," then again attempted to walk away.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning."
They were not going to let me exit willingly, so we made our way across the yard like this, a few steps at a time, them reaching out to me in my native language, with me thanking them and attempting to say bye-bye.
And then they began to serenade me. It was evidently one of their school songs, complete with hand gestures. Only a heartless cretin could walk away from that, so I stopped and turned fully toward them. At the end, I clapped and thanked them. They launched into another song, then another.
I gave up and sat on the pavement. Other children joined them. They sang, then, like Icelandic fairies, they began to dance around me, skipping together, slide stepping, hopping. There were at least a dozen of them by now, their cheeks flush, eyes on me the whole time. A couple of them carried small evergreen tree branches which they held over their heads. After each song, they began to come together around me in a spontaneous group hug, their faces, ringed by the hoods of their rain suits, so close to mine that their breath fogged up my glasses. Some of them even kissed my cheeks before then breaking into another song.
For at least a half an hour then, they danced around me, singing, hugging, kissing. I didn't want to confuse them with tears, so I fought them down. I was sitting in a puddle, but I couldn't bring myself to care. I clapped after each song, saying thank you over and over. They bowed to me, giggled, then sang again as they shared their culture with me.
Finally, their teachers pulled them away. It was time to go back inside. Several of them ran back out for a final hug, a final kiss, a final hot breath on my cheek. Left alone out there, I found my legs not really working properly. It had been overwhelming. The emotion I felt has no name.
Back indoors, I attempted to resume my stance of wallflower. I poked my head into a room of toddlers who hardly took notice of me. Then I felt a tug on my shirt. I turned to find two of my friends. With a flurry of words that sounded to me like birds chirping, they took my hands and pulled me into their classroom, where they sat me down and began bringing books to me. Soon I was surrounded again, being shown pictures, being taught Icelandic words, which I tried to repeat back to them. I asked a teacher if they were meant to be doing something else and she waved my concern away. The ones who were not pressing into me with books, were around a table, doing something with crayons and pencils. Then amidst the books I began to see slips of paper pre-printed with "Hello, my name is . . ." after which they had written their names in their own 5-year-old handwriting. I gave my best effort at pronouncing them.
And then they began drawing pictures for me.
The ones you see illustrating this post are from my new friend Inge, one of the girls who had started it all. I still have not been able to name the emotion they brought up in me. It's a transcendent mixture of gratitude, joy, magic, and love. Indeed, I feel I've been changed by these children who would have none of my feigned aloofness.
I've been told that 80 percent of Icelanders believe in fairies. Count me among them.