Fear and Innocence in Seven-Year-Olds
January 23, 2009
Today I experienced a few “snapshots” of what life is like for a seven-year-old. Three seven-year-olds, that is.
I was on campus at my daughters’ elementary school, hurrying along to get to Phoebe’s classroom to volunteer, when I was stopped by an anxious-looking seven-year-old girl. I had never seen this child before. She had beautiful, strikingly brown eyes which she kept blinking nervously as she spoke:
Girl: Excuse me? Can I ask you a question?
Me: Sure, sweetie. What is it?
Girl: Do you think a spider could walk from the girls bathroom back there (jerks her thumb over her shoulder) to the big kids’ one over there (points)?
Me: Uhh, I’m not sure. Why do you ask?
Girl: (Blinking fast and nodding) Well, earlier I went in that bathroom and there was a SPIDER. So, I was going to try that other bathroom, but I’m afraid the spider walked over into that one. I really gotta go to the bathroom.
Me: Oh…. Spiders are a little creepy, but you have to remember that they don’t really want to bother people. You are really big compared to a spider. Most spiders just want to be left alone.
Girl: (No response. Looking doubtful.)
Me: How ’bout if I go check out one of the stalls in there and make sure it’s spider-free?
Girl: (profound look of relief on her face) Okay.
(We walk to the bathroom together.)
Girl: I wish my mom were here.
At this point, I have to swallow the lump in my throat as I inspect a stall – “Spider Free!” – and leave the girl with a little wink of encouragement. She is little, but growing up. She has fears, as we all do. The reality of the hardness of life from the perspective of a seven-year-old is poignant to me, probably more so than if it were my own seven-year-old asking for help and comfort for her fears. Here I am, a complete stranger, and this little girl reaches out to me for assistance and consolation.
This one is with my own daughter, in her classroom. The entire class had written letters to newly instated President Obama. All the letters contained congratulations, well-wishes, a personal message, and were signed “Your fellow citizen…” followed by the child’s name. I flipped through the stack looking for Phoebe’s letter, and a sensation of pride, amusement, and that same bittersweetness at a child’s innocence welled up within me. For the personal message portion, she had requested that President Obama legalize hedgehogs as pets in the state of California (“because my sister really wants one.”) How cute and innocent is that?! But somehow it made me a little sad, too.
As I left after my volunteer session, I saw another seven-year-old, this time one I knew from Phoebe’s class last year. She looked lost and forlorn, walking along aimlessly.
Me: Emily! How are you?
Me: What are you doing out here, all alone?
Emily: (eyes filling with tears) I don’t know where the rest of my class is!
Me: Hmm. Well, I know recess just ended and the second-graders are back in their classrooms.
Emily: They weren’t in there! I looked, and it was empty. So now I don’t know where to go.
Me: Let’s go see if we can find them together.
I proceeded to walk with her back to her classroom, where, sure enough, her class was all assembled. On the way, I noticed she was shivering, although she carried her sweatshirt. I suggested she put it on, and helped her do it. She looked so tiny and alone.
Maybe the sense of tiredness and weariness I have been struggling with this week impacted my response to these three encounters. Maybe the hint of existential dread I’ve been flirting with in my state of tiredness and weariness magnified these three experiences. Whatever the reason, I left that school a little more sobered and a little more grateful for the love and connectedness I have in my life. Just like a frightened seven-year-old, I need a little help from my friends at times. Just like my idealistic Phoebe, I need to believe that those in authority are concerned about my desires.