“Seek the wisdom of the ages, but look at the
world through the eyes of a child.”
~ Ron Wild.
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
~ Rachel Carson
Mrs. Fryck taught third grade at St Gall Elementary school for many years. She had a raspy voice, a cap of short red curls that never moved, and a stern propriety which terrified my class into quick obedience. She believed that, in addition to the three R’s, it was her duty to prepare us for life in general. Whenever she wanted to impart a pearl of wisdom, she would dip her chin, then peer over the horn-rimmed glasses that always perched halfway down her nose, and fix us with a level glare which made me want to sit up straighter or listen harder.
“All children are born with a special gift,” she said, waving a pointed finger across the room. “Your young minds are open, and you dream big because, to you, nothing is impossible. As you become adults, some of you will narrow that view and forget how to really see. Never, never lose your sight of wonder.”
How empowering! In a world where birthdays couldn’t come fast enough, I already possessed something special, something I didn’t have to wait for.
I vowed to never forget.
Flash forward twenty years: My oldest daughter, Kali, is seated at our kitchen table. The Nickelodeon channel is playing on the portable TV in the corner, but she’s not watching. Like most two year olds, she can’t sit still. She flops around her seat, humming, and making small announcements such as: ants crunch when you step on them, or we shouldn’t have peas for dinner anymore because they are gross, or Daddy says the large metal circles in the middle of the street are really giant pennies. She prattles on while I prepare lunch, and then something very odd happens. My child, who never shuts up, stops talking.
I turn to see what is wrong. She is staring at the TV, utterly transfixed. On screen, a small boy converses with a tall, brown bottle—a matronly creation that glides across the tabletop, waving her arms and extolling the virtues of her syrup with a voice as honeyed as the liquid inside. I look back at my daughter; her mouth is hanging open.
I understand. The problem with this particular commercial is that it’s not a cartoon. It looks real. This is a pivotal teaching moment, come too soon, where my child must learn the world is not always as it appears.
“Hey,” I say, placing her sandwich plate on the table. I shift her chair so she faces me.
“Mom-my! Did you see?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t that silly? It sure looked real, didn’t it? But I have to tell you something, the talking bottle was just make-believe—the people who sell that syrup want to make it look like fun so we’ll buy it.”
She gives me a look—you know, the one all children learn between their second and third year when independent reasoning awakens, and a parent’s halo begins to tarnish just a little. She searches my face and shrugs. “I know.” But as she turns, there is a stubborn, secretive set to her face. I can’t blame her—her dad tells her that he was a banana when he was little, and I support the idea of a fat man in red suit who pops down our non-existent chimney and leaves gifts once a year.
I bite my lip and know we aren’t done.
Fast forward to the grocery store, a few days later. My newborn is nestled, top front of the cart, within the layers of my winter coat and Kali is hopping about inside the main cavity. I am zipping through the aisles, as usual.
“Wait, mommy. Wait, wait, wait!” Kali cries as we round a corner. “I want to see.” She tramples our groceries, then stretches both arms toward the shelving behind us. I back up and come face-to-face with the pancake syrups.
She zeroes in on a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth and beseeches me with shining eyes. “Can we, can we buy this one—please?”
I hesitate. She is always so good in stores and never begs for anything.
I curse the manufacturer, under my breath, then cup her chin. “I will buy that bottle if you would like to try the syrup. But I need to know something first . . . that you understand that bottle is not going to talk to you.”
“Yes, mommy.” She places the syrup among our other items, then ignores it. I take that as a good sign. She is so pleased that she gives her baby sister a happy pat on the belly.
At breakfast the next morning, Kali claps her hands as I pour the gooey goodness on her waffle. “You like?” I ask while twisting the cap shut. She nods, mouth full. I move to return Mrs. B to the pantry.
“No, don’t take it away,” she says, then catches my wary look. “Umm, I just want to look at it while I eat.” She is the picture of innocence, but there is a current in the air. I set the bottle on the table and walk away. Though I make a point of ignoring her, she senses my watchfulness. She peeks at me now and then, waiting until she thinks I’m distracted. I’m not, but I’ve got thirty years on her two so it’s not much of a contest.
Once she’s satisfied that I am suitably busy, she pulls the bottle close and bends low. She takes a deep breath, then whispers, “Hi.”
Mrs. Butterworth does not reply.
Kali tries again, whispering a little louder, this time uncaring of whether I hear or not. Mrs. B. remains mute. Kali leans back and frowns. I prepare for her tears, but she just pushes away from the table and goes off to play.
All morning, she is somewhat distracted. At lunchtime, the commercial comes back. This time, she watches carefully and you can almost see the wheels turning in her mind. I think, perhaps she is accepting the limits of harsh reality when suddenly she claps her hands and exclaims, “I know! Needs a battery.”
And just like that she is smiling, and the world is right again. Creative problem solving at it’s finest. Determined to figure things out for herself, she used what she knew about the world—all of her movable playthings ran on batteries, indeed, why not Mrs. Butterworth?
“Huh,” I say to myself, then give her the hug that I need. Who am I to take this victory away from her?
My youngest, Lauren is four years old when she advises me that she has had visitors during the night. “A witch and a wolf came into my room,” she says. She is quite serious.
I stop straightening the various toys and clothes that always litter a child’s floor and sit on her bed. She is still wrapped in her blankets, and leafs through the pages of a large picture book. “Really? Were you scared?”
“A little,” she admits. There is a tremble in her voice.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I took care of it myself.” She flips her palms up, matter-of-fact. I detect some pride and am thoroughly piqued.
“How did you do that?”
“I put them back in the book!” She giggles, and so do I.
I understand now why Mrs. Fryck loved teaching the third grade. In world beset with rules and structure, she found a way to surround herself, each day, with living reminders of how to really see, then preserved that legacy by teaching us to hold it close.