Nine-year-old Tanya was frenetic and funny and fierce when I was her counselor at a camp for kids with emotional disturbances. She couldn’t keep still, never paused when she spoke, often wore her clothes backward because she didn’t stop to consider that detail in the brisk morning air of our cabin.
Tanya would pop a person — hard — before asking questions. Her aggression was hot but forgotten as soon as her hand hit your body. All summer, the counselors worked to help her stop to think. “Why did you do that?” we’d ask. Each time, she’d reply, “I’m bad!” We’d sigh and repeat this mantra: “There are no bad children, Tanya. There are only bad choices.” But Tanya, eyes darting, body fidgeting, never seemed to focus, and we thought the message dissipated like the fire in her fist.
One day, Tanya spied a toad as she raced to our cabin. She stopped, as if she had slammed into a wall, and captured it. The toad wriggled in Tanya’s hands, and she yelled: “Bad frog. Stay with me!” Then her yelling seemed to hit a wall, too. Slower, gentler than I had ever seen her move, she released the toad before taking off again. “There are no bad frogs!” she called over her shoulder to me and the toad. “Only bad choices!”
The preschool mothers’ tea at our Catholic parish was overflowing with emotion and pride. One child after another shared his newly glazed plate with everyone in attendance.
The colorful plates brimmed with drawings of flowers, stars, smiles, rainbows and puppies. The crescendo of “oohs” and “ahhs” was peaking when my son lifted his plate. Suddenly, silence.
Five-year-old Peter’s drawing was definitely abstract. Sensing a lack of appreciation, he said with gusto: “Don’t you get it? It’s Jesus dying on the cross.” Tears ensued, as well as whispers of “going to be a priest someday.”
I floated home, the envy of many a mother.
Dinner neared, and the plate was displayed in a place of honor. Nearby, I heard Peter tell his 7-year-old brother, Andrew: “I told all the moms that it’s Jesus dying on the cross. It’s really Darth Vader escaping from the Death Star.”
In the 1980s, a young engineer and I were in Berlin for a business meeting. My companion was interested in the Berlin Wall, so we took a cab to Checkpoint Charlie hoping to get some of the wall as souvenirs. As we walked along the wall, we could not find any pieces. We came across a hole about four feet long but only about four inches wide. Through it, I could see many pieces of rubble on the East German side but could not reach them.
Then, an East German boy about 8 or 10 saw us. He walked up to the wall, scooped a few handfuls of rubble, and threw them to our side.
We returned to the States with a few pounds of the wall in our luggage.
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