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For the week of Nov. 3, 1999 through Nov. 9, 1999

A giant grab bag of young minds

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

A poet once said, "Work is love made visible." I appreciate that concept almost every day, for I am one of the lucky ones. I work with kids.

Not only do I teach 10th grade English, but also I am in daily contact with wee ones in the job I also share as an administrative assistant for grades kindergarten through 5th grade at the Community School.

I’m blessed because I inhabit a work world much like a giant grab bag. As one who relishes surprises, reaching into a bag and pulling out something unexpected is great fun. On any given day at my school I might pull out a gem, usually in the form of a delightful saying by a 6-year-old or the look of trust as I remove a splinter from a kindergartner’s thumb.

One day I was working on a deeply imbedded splinter in the finger of a brave 7-year-old. I was wiping away his tears and apologizing for the painful digging I needed to do to get the stubborn thing out. Just as I yanked out the offending log, this stalwart little boy looked at me and said, "Don’t worry, JoEllen. I’ve known worse!"

No matter how muddled may be my private life or how unhappy I may feel when I awaken, I can always expect to find a reason to smile at the innocence and trust I encounter in my job. One day I was feeling a bit glum when a parent stopped to tell me a story. Her little boy had stopped by my office for a Band-Aid the day before; while I was choosing just the right size for his scuffed knee, he noticed the abundance of first aid supplies in my drawer. That night at dinner he mentioned his uncle Willy, whose tool shop is a constant source of delight to him. He loves to spend hours looking at his uncle’s array of awls, hammers, saws and nails. So, he announced to his parents, he had decided that "JoEllen is the uncle Willy of Band-Aids!" Need I say that I had fodder for the sharing of humor the rest of the day?

A couple of years ago I taught a class at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts where elementary students spent after school sessions writing about the paintings on exhibit in the center’s gallery. One of my most gifted boys surprised me weekly with his creative view of art. One week, though, he spent our time together fidgeting instead of writing. When I asked him why his paper was blank, this 8-year-old sighed, looked me directly in the eyes and said, "I’m suffering from writers’ block."

Certainly some of the funniest things I hear are based on a child’s perception of adult language. One day at my desk I overheard the conversation of two girls who stayed inside during a very snowy recess because they were recuperating from severe colds. A bit restless, they had gotten bored with coloring and were straining to think of new sources of entertainment. Finally, one girl said to the other, "Let’s play phone tag—you know, where I call you up and leave a message and you call up and leave me one." Perhaps by now kids are using the lingo of the Internet to make up new games.

Of course, children are often very literal. Once by the tidepools in Malibu, my next-door neighbor’s 3-year-old showed me a bucket which contained a small octopus he had found in the pools. His sister carefully explained to him that the creature needed to be returned to the sea. She cited the movie they had just watched, Born Free. She pointed out that Elsa the lion had been born free and then allowed to live free, returning to the wild terrain of Africa upon maturity. He nodded, apparently in assent. Later that afternoon, we all noticed that he still had the octopus in captivity. When we asked him why he hadn’t thrown the creature into the ocean he said, "Well, he was born free, he lived free and now he’s going to die free in my bucket!"

One of the observations I have made listening to children every day is that they are usually honest and loving in their language. When my dog Oscar was kidnapped, the kids at my school instinctively understood the power of words to help me through the ordeal. Each day I would get e-mails, computer printouts and drawings urging me to "buck up." One showed Oscar sitting on a train bound for Ketchum. Underneath the drawing was the expression "Keep on truckin’." The creative 9-year-old had added another thought, "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." That’s an adult expression, odd in the scribble of such a young girl, but she knew it would do the trick. She understood the power of language. Two weeks after he disappeared from my car in the Twin Falls mall, I found him. When I announced the news over the intercom, children tumbled out of their classrooms, screaming with joy and jumping up and down.

They made me feel special then, and continue to bless me with their energy and their fresh perceptions of the world. My work is love made visible.


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