Monday, August 16, 2021

Comrades Against the Dark and Absurd Mysteries

A five-year-old and I were hanging out by the gate where several parents were engaged in conversation. She was staring at the adults as if paying rapt attention to their words, but soon she acknowledged me with a smile, "Hi, Teacher Tom."

I greeted her in return, then mimicked the wha-whaa-wha trombone sound adults make as they talk in the old Peanuts cartoons. She turned to me suddenly, listened for a second, then laughed. I doubt she's seen a Peanuts cartoon, but she got the joke, as she began making the sounds back to me. And together we carried on a conversation in this way until we both started laughing at the absurdity.

The great Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg writes, 

When we are little children we have our eyes fixed above all on the world of adults, which is dark and mysterious to us. It seems absurd to us because we don't understand any of the words which adults say to one another, or the sense of their decisions and actions, or the reasons for their changes of mood and sudden outbursts of anger. We don't understand the words which adults say to each other and we are not interested in them; on the contrary they are infinitely boring to us. What interests us are the decisions of theirs that can alter our daily routine, the black moods that spoil lunches and suppers, the sudden slamming of doors, and voices raised in the night. 

I recall this being true for me as a boy. I fully identified with the wha-whaa-wha joke. In fact, I recall thinking for a time that adults simply had a different language they used for talking to one another, even as I understood most of the individual words I overheard. And although my parents were not inclined toward the "slamming of doors" and "voices raised," I do remember the seemingly sudden onset of "black moods." 

Adult conversations remained boring to me well into adolescence, the difference being that I fully understood their language, but simply couldn't understand why they wasted their breath on those endless and insipid conversations about real estate or housekeeping or office politics or something one neighbor said to another. It was still absurd, almost to the point of being intolerable. I also understood more of the emotional content, what a clenched-tooth smile meant for instance, and could make an evasive retreat in anticipation of those "black moods." (The conversations I had with my peers, on the other hand, were so interesting that I would spend hours teasing apart a single sentence said to me by this or that kid, searching through the infinite possibilities of what they had really meant.) 

In other words, I'd learned that adults are mere mortals after all, but still living in an entirely different world than the one I inhabited. It was a frightening time as it slowly dawned on me that the adults didn't know more than I did, at least not about important things, that they fretted and fumed over nonsense, and that there was little obvious logic behind the things they did and said. 

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I held a summer job working for the Corvallis Oregon Parks & Recreation Department as a youth baseball coach. I'd done a little baby sitting before then, but this was really my first experience in working with children. It shocked me to realize that for the four and five year olds I was an adult. It was not, however, surprising that the parents of these young children, viewed me as a kid. It was from this perspective of living between the two worlds that I first saw how easily and regularly an adult can, in an unguarded moment, cause a child to retreat into wariness and even anxiety. A parent might beam at me as they hustled their child onto the field, they might bend down and lovingly kiss their child on the cheek, they might sing out their goodbyes, but I could tell when all was not well, and that the "absurd mystery" of adulthood was on a child's mind.

I saw it as my job to take the child's side, to be the "adult" who did not speak a different language, who placed the child and the child's interests at the center of the world. I was, frankly, incapable at that age of identifying with the adults, but I could offer my full empathy to the children and that's what I did, protectively and with the intent of restoring them. It is this experience that I find myself returning to again and again as I work with young children and the other adults in their lives.

Those years were important for me and not because they laid the foundation for what became my ultimate calling in life. Adolescence is famously a time of discontent. It can be a time of depression and anxiety; of dangerous and destructive behavior. It's as young teens, that we begin to think we understand adulthood and it holds little charm for us, at least not as our own adults do it. It was an incredible gift for me to have had, in the midst of this time of life, young children beside me. I didn't know it at the time, but it was in the spirit of teen rebellion that I befriended these young humans. I would show them both that they were right about the absurdity and that there were at least some "adults" (meaning me) who got both it and them.

I know now that this was a gift for the young children as well. For some of them, I know, those hours with me on the baseball field were the best part of their days, the times when they weren't tensely anticipating the "dark moods" of the adults in their life. I was an adult who they could understand and who, in turn, understood them. Indeed, I wish that all children had teenagers in their life because it's teenagers who stand between the two worlds and can, better than anyone, translate and interpret in ways that young children understand.

Throughout the rest of our day together, the five-year-old and I made trombone sounds at one another, acknowledging absurdity, rebelling, and connecting as comrades against the dark mysteries.


"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices.
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