Thursday, March 29, 2012

Child Care

The year was 1972, the place a school nestled in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. I arrived as a 21-year-old college intern to teach and stepped out of the car to be greeted by a cluster of middle school kids. The first to step up was a 12 yr. old girl with wild frizzy hair and a twinkle in her eye. “Hi!” she said with a smile. “I’m Ralf.” And so began a beautiful lifelong friendship.

From that startling beginning, I discovered that Ralf and I shared a similar sense of humor and a passion for music. I remember looking at a book catalogue and cracking up for twenty minutes over one title: My Darling, My Hamburger. We decided that Groundhog’s Day was our favorite holiday and still send each other greetings every February. We started playing recorder together and she was the star washboard player in the jug band I started.

That job lasted a mere six months, but Ralf and I kept in touch. Some years later, she lived in California as a student at Sonoma State and came regularly to visit her Mom in San Francisco. Eventually she married and settled in New York for a time, where we managed a few visits and then moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to raise her two boys and become a third-grade teacher. At opposite sides of the country, our friendship was reduced to annual Xmas cards and Groundhog’s Day greetings.

In 2006, circumstances reunited us for three fun days back at that North Carolina School in company with three of the other jugband members. As it is with friends, a few decades were crossed instantly as we all picked up where we had left off, only this time with graying hair. And here on my Spring Break, my wife and I finally came to her home in Charlottesville en route to Monticello. That 12-year old now 52, but with the humor and twinkle intact. And the music. After dinner, we started singing the old songs and amazed ourselves what we pulled out from the deep recesses of the musical brain.

But most moving was when Ralf looked at me sincerely and told me I was one of the most important teachers in her life. Taken by surprise, I asked, “Can you be more specific?”

“You cared about me and were interested in me at the times in my life when I needed someone to care about me and be interested in me.”

“But that was no effort. I just liked you!”

And there it is. Turns out that’s all I needed to do. I’m such an idiot, thinking that I need to impress kids with fun classes or Martin Luther Kingish speeches at school ceremonies or the perfectly calibrated curriculum. But it’s so much simpler than that. Just be interested in them and care about them. Of course, we do need to teach them stuff and it might as well be fun, engaging and cohesive and that indeed takes a lot of work. But at the end of the day, the biggest impact comes from the least effort—just like kids and show them you care.

But like all worthy things, it’s simple and it’s not. We can make a connection with any kid (or adult) simply by asking, “What’s your passion?” and then let them talk. And that does count for a lot. But the two things that count even more are:

1)    A chemistry beyond logic. You simply are happy in each other’s presence.
2)    A shared passion.

And that’s not for the masses. That’s a gift. If you have one kid a year that you connect to like that, you’re doing well. Maybe one or two kids a lifetime is all we get. But you can’t have it with them all. My daughter just wrote a Blog about a school in England that banned best friends because it’s “unfair and exclusive,” yet another idiotic piece of social engineering that ignores the way human beings are put together (right up there with “Siblings Without Rivalry”). Human chemistry is real and mysterious—we can’t concoct connections in the laboratory. They grow naturally in the wild and all we need do is accept them as they come. Yes, we need to be mildly careful of the teacher’s-pet syndrome, but forget fairness. What’s unfair is to neglect such a precious relationship. All a child needs is one teacher at the right time and the right place to see, know, feel affection for him or her and a life can be changed forever.

So in a lifetime of effort to be worthy of children, I once did something right. I liked a kid and kept on liking her and let her know it and lo and behold, it ended up mattering. 

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