"Hi, Grandma!" came floating over the playground this afternoon, high pitched and filled with glee. The words were followed by a flying wedge of third graders. I moved toward a bench to reduce the chances that their greeting would end with me on the ground. Hugs are wonderful, but sometimes they are overpowering.
We walked, three of us, two Spanish-is my-first-language girls and a boy who weighed as much as they did, all by himself. His tee shirt was tight across his bulging breasts; it was no wonder that the other boys wanted nothing to do with him. He was delighted to stroll around the playground with us, feeling part of a group. Recess is hard for those who don't look like everyone else, even when the everyone else means the Nepali and Somali and Pakistani and Central American colors of the rainbow playing soccer and jumping rope during their fifteen minutes of free play time. He's just too big; his shirt was drenched with sweat after two revolutions on the walking track.
I don't try to collect a group before I set out. I just start walking and they adhere to me like grains of sand on the beach. I turn, and there are five of them reaching for the tail end of my multi-colored cloak. I pause to catch my breath, and there are brown arms encircling my waist. They are gone before I can swivel my head to see the human to whom they are attached.
Sometimes, it only takes a hug to make the day worthwhile.
The kids were talkative today, which let me save my breath for fueling my strides. I don't bring hiking poles along anymore; I'm an independent ambulator these days. I was tilted and tired as we went round and round the playground this afternoon, but I was not using any assistive devices. That is progress.
Students come and go in this neighborhood school; job changes and lost leases and deaths and a general instability mark the lives of most of the children. The heavy set stroller announced that he was only going to be at Prince this year; his brother's school is too far from their current apartment so they'll be moving closer so that he can get there on time. That's not the kind of explanation I remember from my childhood when a friend moved away; it didn't seem odd to my companions, though. I am constantly reminded of the obstacles these kids face every morning, trying to arrive promptly with all their gear in tow.
Disorganization leads to learning problems; the kindergarteners are instructed to look in their seat bags for word lists, to replace the pencils and crayons in the appropriate containers, to sit in their assigned seats and to line up according to plan. For many of them, it's the only time that anyone notices if they are following instructions. The idea that putting something away in its assigned spot will help you find it on the morrow is news to them.
So, today, when we began to walk, a returning member of my crew wondered if she should wait until we'd completed an entire circumnavigation of the playground before she began to hand out stickers. That was what was expected last year; she wanted to know if the rules had changed. There was no grabbing, there was no pushing, there was not yelling. These were third and fourth graders, and they'd learned their lessons well. It was much less exhausting than putting that plan into effect with the littler ones.
We didn't sing. They talked, and I listened. This one's brother was comforting a girl who was being bullied by that one in the pink shirt over there. Her brother told her all about it. The bully was mean, but the crying girl was meaner. They were both in the wrong, we decided. Talking things out might help them, and we were very glad that her brother was there trying to sort things out. "He's good at that," I was assured. By the time we got around to their corner again, the drama had ended, or moved inside.
I get snippets of their lives, and then they go on to classrooms and more learning. I hear stories and can't remember who told me which one, though I try to disguise my forgetfulness with smiles and hugs. They open a window into a world unlike mine in so many ways, until I notice the kid in the corner, alone, uncertain, wary. That was me. Inviting that lonely being into our circle is just one part of the healing that goes on when I walk with the kids at Prince. I'm not mending only my physical self, I'm repairing the damage that was done fifty-some years ago on a playground in New York.
I'm trying to right the universe, one little kid at a time.