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Opinion Column
For the week of November 22 through 28, 2000

One really good (little) person

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

Whenever I am feeling "off," I am reassured by the certainly that during my eight-hour day some special soul will come up with a phrase or action that stirs within me a positive response.

At the risk of being considered overly sentimental this holiday season, I must share a story that reminded me of the delights one often finds in daily life. I used to seek out only the most dramatic occasions to celebrate, but I have learned to find instead those moments every day that nourish me. So, in a segment that should be on Oprah, let me explain.

On Halloween day, I donned silk scarves, set a night-light beneath a large round glass bowl, and slipped into my role as Josefina Elenita Collinski, fortune teller. As most of you know, I work at an elementary school and encounter there the different world views of small human beings. It is a constant source of surprise and joy. Whenever I am feeling "off," I am reassured by the certainly that during my eight-hour day some special soul will come up with a phrase or action that stirs within me a positive response. It’s hard to remain rigid or stuffy when surrounded by energetic children.

My stint as a seer was no exception: I had great fun wrapping my window in black, turning off the lights and calling in children one at a time to hold their tiny hands and read their palms. I used a magnifying glass to "see" the lines on their hands more clearly.

Of course, I don’t claim to have any special powers, and I believe everyone involved took my charade as a game. Another caveat: I only gave positive and very general fortunes. You see, I still recall the prediction of a hired palmist at my high school senior all-night party. She said I’d live to be very old but have lots of illnesses along the way. In retrospect, I find that kind of prediction inappropriate for one setting out on the adventures of emerging adulthood. Actually, I’ve been rather healthy, thank God, and I don’t think much about the "really old" part. My point in this recollection is that some superstitious corner of my personality fixed that information deep in my mind. Of all the words I heard that year, only those remain.

Therefore, I felt responsible to be upbeat. I’m certainly not interested in exposing vulnerable young minds to negative possibilities. I’m not sadistic! I also wanted my fortunes to vary for each student, and I was careful about the way children interpret statements literally. There was, for example, the kindergartner who returned to class unhappy when I told him he’d live to be a happy old man. He told his teacher, "I don’t want to be an old man," probably picturing himself as burdened with a long white beard and stooped posture for the remainder of his days! By the end of the day I began to run thin on witty age-appropriate forecasts, and in the process began to wax rather more philosophical than I had intended.

Thus, when an especially sweet third grade boy came by at the tail end of my operations, I found myself noting his very deep (in pudgy hands) heart line as a sign he "felt deeply" about important things. Then I caught myself embellishing this simple observation: he would find, I noted, that this heart line would "feed" his lifeline in a wonderful way because he would care about the "right" things, not be hateful or spiteful. I almost pulled back from the exercise to laugh at myself for my pompous, pedantic solemnity. However, I glanced over at him, and saw he was staring intently at me. A pause. He looked into my heavily mascaraed eyes and solemnly said, as though to reassure me, "I’m a very good person." I wanted to capture that moment forever.

For here, indeed, was a true example of the innocence and openness of the young. And, yes, he is, by the way, a very good boy. I’ve never seen him aggressive, rude, or hostile. But what I loved most was his own self-knowledge, so pure. This is why I enjoy experiencing the lives of children.

I believe that people more often than not live up to the positive expectations loving mentors have for them. But how wonderful at such a young age to have an expectation molded by one’s own positive self-concept. Garrison Kellor says humorously of Lake Woebegone, that all the children there are "above average." We, too, can find something wonderful in every child.

According to a piece in the Nov. 6 Time magazine by Roger Rosenblatt, psychologist Jerome Bruner asserts that "children acquire language to tell the stories that are in them." If that is so, then the boy who informed me of his goodness used his language to convey his own story -- one he understands already in a most precocious way. I hope his self-story, his decency, is unchanged as he ages.

How many of us, after life’s vicissitudes and challenges, can look in the mirror and see a "really good person?" Can I even say that just for today -- one day -- I was a really good person, without any rationalizations or excuses? None of us, of course, is untarnished, but being reminded that underneath our layers of error resides a fundamentally decent person can’t hurt as we try to be our best.

Thanks for the children.


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