The Little Ones

finger paintingThere are those who are meant to work with children and those who are not. Unfortunately, I am in the ‘not’ category.

My daughter, Kristen, has a child on her lap, longing to be adopted seconds after being introduced. She is the pied piper of little ones; they trail after her like baby ducks, because she sees into their soul and shows them their beauty. 

Amy is a slender woman with a long braid trailing down her back. She is in my writing group and teaches kindergarten in a Japanese immersion school. She comes to our group with stories of glue sticks, muddy boots, carp kites and little raincoats. There is a tender intimacy in the broadness of her love. 

My sister, Kristen, took her skills from the performing arts and shuttled them into a school library in upstate New York. She makes stories come alive with music, character voices and puppetry. The children think she lives in the library closet and owns every book. They have no idea how lucky they are. Her spirit is gentle, reverent and embracing.

I was not blessed with that gift. My need for quiet and aversion to chaos has limited my desire. But, before I knew that, I applied for and received two grants to work with children as an artist in residence. The first grant came from the city of Portland.

On my first day at school I met a little girl in the hallway and decided to get acquainted.

 Hello Sweetheart, I said, how are you today?

She stopped walking, looked up at me, and kicked me as hard as she could.

I hate you, she said and walked away. That was pretty much how it went.

I got busy creating a theater piece on the stage. I expected the kids I was not working with to be still and watch, instead they began opening the windows and crawling out. I had no idea how to stop them. There were too many and I was stunned. I had to request help from one of the teachers. When I went to school in Vermont, students sat quietly, never moved an inch. It was formal; the boys wore shirts and ties, the young women wore dresses. This was very different.

The next grant was at the Waverly Home for Emotionally Disturbed Boys.

I know, I’m a slow learner, but reasoned it would be better since the children came with room counselors who were obviously trained to keep order. I’d brought large vats of paint in white plastic buckets and lined them along the edge of folding tables for days of creativity and puppet building.

Turns out it was not a painting day for Darren, who was one of the last to arrive, so he picked up a paint bucket and sent bright hues of liquid purple into the air, which landed on the walls, windows, across my favorite skirt and dripped over my apron. That was a moment of significant insight for me. 

In that moment, I knew with complete certainty that my place in the world was working with grown-ups. I wanted quiet people, people who did not climb out of windows while we were working together, people who did not leave my clothes dripping with purple paint, or kick me in the leg when they were having a bad day, and you know what? I’ve never really changed my mind.

The Telephone


I was in my late twenties when I got a job as an Artist in Residence for the city of Portland. They sent a woman to my house to tell me the good news because I didn’t have a phone. Do you think, she asked, now that you’ve been hired that you would install a telephone?

Sorryit has nothing to do with money, I don’t want to live with a telephone.

Phones and I have never been friends. Don’t really know why.

Maybe because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and give them my complete attention, whether I want to or not. Maybe it’s the disembodied voice and lack of visuals that unsettles me – or maybe it was gathering my courage as a child to tell the operator that I needed the phone number for Walt Disney because I wanted to join the Mickey Mouse Club. I think he lives in Hollywood. That’s some place in California.

She dashed my dreams in one short sentence.  Quit playing with the phone kid. Click.

I didn’t give up. I wrote him a letter. One year later I got a postcard. Thank you for your interest. We’re glad you enjoy the show. Click.

benzDidn’t they understand that I was one of them? Didn’t they get how good I’d look in those ears? They should send a big long car immediately to snatch me out of my nowhere life and take me to my destiny. I could picture the uniformed guy stepping out of the driver’s seat and ushering me inside. He would put my meager suitcase in the trunk, as a souvenir, because the back seat would already be filled with my new, expensive, fit-me-perfectly Mickey Mouse clothes. Of course, I would miss my parents, but oh well, I’d get over it. What was wrong with those people anyway?

Maybe it was being sent to boarding school where telephones were off limits, although letters were allowed. I’d pour out my homesick heart and have my letters returned, misspelled words circled in red. Click.

My Aunt Ethel was a lifeline. She didn’t like phones either. She had her parrot answer hers. He was a huge colorful bird who toe nailed his way around an open silver perch. When the phone rang, she held it near his face and he’d scream HAIL OOOOOOOH. It was great.

Sometimes I carry a cell phone (to please my husband) when I can find it and it’s not dead. He is very modern and wants me to be. But I don’t like to take it. I like to lose it, because when it goes off it alarms me, sending me into the air with such force others assume I’ve been stung by a bee. It’s either that or fumbling for glasses, searching for the right button, and snap. Missed the call and took my photo instead.

My granddaughter, Isabella, asked how old her mom was when she got her first phone. Isabella thought perhaps she was being cheated by having to wait until she was out of elementary school. I wanted to tell her about phone operators who knew where your neighbors went and when they’d be back. I wanted to tell her about party lines and how each farm had a different ring and how you could spend hours listening in if you wanted to, agreeing or disagreeing in the middle of another persons conversation, but in the end I decided to leave it alone. She already calls me old school and asks what life was like before Christ.