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.
Im 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 kindergartners 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, "Dont worry, JoEllen. Ive
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
uncles 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 centers 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, "Im suffering from writers block."
Certainly some of the funniest things I hear are based on a
childs 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,
"Lets play phone tagyou 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 neighbors 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 hadnt thrown the creature into the ocean he said, "Well, he
was born free, he lived free and now hes 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 doesnt kill you makes you
stronger." Thats 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.