I've been hugged by POTUS and FLOTUS. I've chatted about New Jersey with Brian Williams. The Director of the FBI sent me a hand written "glad you're out of the hospital" note. Strangers, visitors from Minnesota and Montana, shake my hand and wish me well in restaurants. I've received crocheted comfort shawls and a Native American healing blanket and a hand-made quilt.
Each and every one of those things has been wonderful and has filled my heart with love and joy. But yesterday afternoon I was in the presence of a superstar, and I'm still aglow. Listen.......
Linda Solomon is an author and a photo-journalist. She called the house ten days ago and charmed TBG with her enthusiasm and compassion. He thought I'd be interested in her project, and passed the handset to my outstretched arm. That was the only part of me which was out; the rest was snuggled under the aforementioned quilt, trying to avoid thinking about what had happened to me. I was in a leave me alone kind of space, but TBG had a smile on his face and I just can't resist that. Sure, I'll take the phone.
Linda was fast and furious and full of details and data and thoughts and love and she really really wanted me to judge a kids' photo contest. She'd given disposable cameras to a group of 9 and 10 year olds at a local elementary school. She'd invited a group of Tucsonans to review the pictures and choose the ones we liked the most. Was I interested in joining them?
I'm not sure how being shot qualifies me to be a photography critic, but she was relentless and really didn't want to take no for an answer. So I committed myself to 90 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon at a school several miles from my couch. Then, I went back to sleep.
Yesterday was that Tuesday. I dressed for the occasion, wearing blue since Linda had said that there would be photographers and blue is the preferred color for that medium. (Ah, denizens, the things I've learned since January 8th...) TBG spent the morning in the dentist's chair so Amster picked me up and took me to the appointment while he nursed his swollen jaw. (If it's not one thing, it's another....) The sun was out and her mom-mobile-mini-van feels safe and secure and she's a good driver so the world felt like an okay place to be. We had pizza outside (it's in the 70's here in Tucson.... why do you all live in such cccccold places?) and bought and delivered fancy cupcakes to a knee-replaced friend and for a while it felt like a normal day. The knot in my heart loosened just a touch. I was in the world and of the world and I wasn't scared at all. There's something to be said for the healing power of friends.
We found the school and Amster held the doors as I hopped in with my walker. All those bar dips are coming in handy as distances seem to magnify themselves before my very eyes. Twenty feet are twenty dips; my triceps are looking quite healthy these days.
The school's grounds were immaculate. There was not a scrap of litter on the ground nor a bit of graffiti on the walls. The signage was bright and cheery, welcoming and encouraging. It looked like a good place to learn. The lobby was filled with students and grown ups and there was Ben Tracey, the CBS West Coast reporter who'd been in my living room last month Of all the reporters who'd traipsed through our lives, he was the kindest and gentlest. Seeing him made me smile and then stop to think : this was obviously more than judging a kids' art project. Linda had created an event. I was glad I had taken the time to mousse my hair.
Jeannette Mare, Executive Director of Ben's Bells, shook my hand. Ben's Bells defines Tucson's spirit for me - born out of sorrow, it extols kindness and community and has truly made lemonade out of lemons. Beautiful Anne brought me a bell in the hospital and it hangs by the fireplace in front of me as I'm typing to you now. It warms my heart and fills my soul. I was honored to be a judge along side her. Kristi Tedesco, our local NBC news anchor and a Tucsonan through and through was there, too. She'd touched me with her thoughtful interview in my living room soon after I was discharged; she understood my connection to Christina-Taylor and shared my sorrow. I felt better after talking to her then, and I was happy to see her in the plastic chair next to me yesterday. I'm always surprised by the fact that the people on tv are just regular folks; in her jeans and sweater she was just another mom doing something fun in the afternoon. I took a deep breath and relaxed into my chair.
The small conference room was filled with microphones and lights and cameras and all the humans who are attached to creating a televised news report. By now, I'm aware of the drill - drop the cord of the mic down the front of my sweater, clip the little box to the edge of the chair or my waistband, look at the interlocutor and not the camera - and I even recognized some of the players. Ashleigh's gone big time, folks!
Linda had culled the pictures and selected two or three from each child for us to judge. Our mission was to find the photos which best represented that child's Hope for America. The pictures we selected would be made into greeting cards, with the child's hope inscribed. (I'll be sure to let you all know about them once they are created..... no worries there, denizens!) The videographers focused in on the snapshots as Linda read us the hopes - no more war, help sick people, help homeless people and jobless people, end animal cruelty, feed the hungry, send everyone to college..... so much to do.... and they are only 9 and 10.
There were shots of the schoolyard and of hands gripped in friendship and tributes to Gabby Giffords and trees and blue skies and puppies. Flash reflections off glass cases covering hallway artwork didn't mar the impact of their visions. These children were making statements. They were working with film, not digital images, and so they had to be judicious in what they chose to shoot. Some were perfectly framed and some were out of focus but all of them had meaning. There were quite a few teary eyes around the judges' table.
This is not a magnet school. There is no admissions test or interview required to attend Prince Elementary School. Native Arizonans and resettled refugees and immigrants from all over the world learn together at this No Excuses University where the halls are decorated with banners from colleges and universities and where every student is college bound. High expectations and lots of love combined with the pride inherent in doing a good job - I'd stumbled upon an oasis of excellence in the middle of my school district. My public school district, to which TBG and I dutifully pay our taxes every year. I was feeling pretty good. The assistant principal was one of the judges; she knew each and every photographer's story, and shared them with discretion and a smile. It was easy to see that she liked her work. No wonder. The results were evident on the friendly faces in the hallway and the pride of place in the building itself. This school is a gem.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, Linda shared Juan's photographs. Instead of just 2 or 3 pictures, Linda gave us all the photos that Juan had taken. We grown-ups grew silent as we passed the shots around. Perfectly framed. Elegantly composed. Thoughtfully constructed. We were awestruck. Jeannette wants the one of his graffiti damaged mailbox for her office wall. I couldn't stop looking at the blue sky, the palm tree, and the defaced 25mph sign. Without formal instruction, Juan had mastered the photographer's rule of 3's; the composition told the story as much as the objects themselves. We just couldn't decide which one to choose. We spent almost 15 minutes looking and wiping tears and shaking our heads. Who was this kid?
When the door opened towards the end of our session a little boy entered shyly. This was Juan. THIS is Juan? we said in one voice. Our smiles and dancing eyes were overwhelming him; who were these grown-ups, after all? I asked if I could shake his hand, and told him about the 15 minutes we had spent admiring his work. "You looked at my pictures for 15 minutes?" Yes, we did. He stood there and shook his head. He was stunned.
He watched the final minutes of the judging, saw the other judges leave the room, all of us exchanging cards and hugs and smiles and promises to keep in touch, and then it was Kristi and Ben and Juan and me (and, of course, the camera and sound people and the producers), ready for our interview.
"Have you ever been on tv before?" I asked Juan? He smiled a little smile and shook his head. "Well, here's the drill.... do all your scratching and rubbing and sniffling before they turn on the cameras. Keep your hands in your lap and away from your mouth; your mom will want to see all of that handsome face so don't cover it up. Can we have a drink of water for Juan, please? He doesn't want to cough on camera." The look on Juan's face when the adults all raced for a drink for him was priceless - he was important enough to make grown ups jump. It was amazing and surprising and pleasing; it made me happy to be a part of it all
Kristi Tedesco is a wonder - she knelt on the other side of the table, looked Juan straight in the eye, and asked him serious questions in a kid-friendly voice. "Respell your name for me, please" became a request between peers rather than an order from an older. I was in awe. But that was nothing to what came after. "Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?"...... that question that everyone asks and no one can really answer. No one but Juan, that is. This 9 year old, this child, this wonderful human being looked straight back at Kristi and said "No, I don't think that far ahead. If I do, I might get scared because it's far away and I might not reach my goals. So I concentrate on today and doing well right now because then I will be ready for my future." I may not have gotten it exactly right, but I'm sure I'm pretty close. No one spoke after he finished his answer. The air was filled with awe.
Who is this child?
He is everyone's child. He's the kid you want to nurture and support and cherish. He knows that role models are few and far between, and often aren't those you love the most. He told that to the camera and we all knew that he was speaking from his heart. He exists in the moment, and his moment is filled with anxiety and uncertainty and a sense of unease; graffiti on his mailbox makes him feel that people have tampered "with my personal private place and I don't like it at all.... it makes me frightened and feel unsafe." I'd like to find the tagger and read him that sentence over and over and over again... for days....weeks....months...years...... until he recognized that his one random act had impacted the life of this beautiful, talented, special little boy.
Juan is only 9 years old. His future includes college and family and lots of love. For now, though, he shares his perspective with his peers and his teachers and with a few of us lucky enough to have been in the room with him yesterday. He impressed us, one and all.
But the story isn't over, yet. Juan took a seat in the corner of the room while Ben and I chatted (the interview is supposed to be on Katie Couric's Nightly News tonight) about the photographs and Christina's hopes for the world and then the professionals began to clean up their mess and it occurred to me that I'd never introduced myself to Juan.
"Do you know why I was interviewed just now? Do you know who I am?"
"No, I don't"
"Do you remember that there was a shooting last month at a Safeway? (he nodded yes) I am the lady who took Christina to meet her Congresswoman and....."
and before I could say anything more he was up from his chair, staring at my face, and saying "YOU are a special person... you are a very special person."
And then he walked through the wires with the most purposeful look on his face and he hugged me.
He patted my back as I bawled like a baby and he hugged me tighter.
There wasn't a dry eye in the room.
Who is this kid? He is all of us and all of ours and everything Christina-Taylor saw in America exists in his little self.
It was a wonderful wonderful wonderful day.