Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lilacs in Spring

Back in the good old days when I was a sweet young thing, I spent a short time teaching in an early childhood program in the Denver Public Schools. It was an innovative program, federally funded, in a largely working-class neighborhood. I was blessed to share the classroom with a full-time teaching assistant who was working as an assistant only because she was updating her teaching credentials after taking time out for mommy duty for several years. The two of us were responsible for teaching morning and afternoon classes of about fourteen children, mostly four-year-olds and some who had turned five too late to enroll in kindergarten.

The children attended class Tuesday through Friday. Monday was reserved for home visits. The assistant and I would schedule about six visits each Monday, meaning that we managed to get around to each child's home about every five or six weeks. We'd bring books and learning games into homes that often didn't have money to spend on things that seemed a bit frivolous. And we'd talk to parents about how things like teaching children to separate the spoons, knives, and forks into their own piles in the drawer helped children learn to notice similarities and differences, an essential pre-reading skill. The focus was on helping parents to be more effective "first teachers," both to improve the probability of academic success for our specific students and for any younger siblings that might be in the home.

As you can probably imagine, there were some families with whom we developed strong rapport, especially with the mothers. They were, after all, the ones who welcomed us into their homes for visits. They were the ones who walked their children to school if there were no older siblings available for the duty. They were the ones who made sure their daughters were carefully dressed and hair was braided in corn rows with little fancy ornaments tying up the ends. They were the ones who made sure that little boys had matching socks and double knots in their sneakers. They were lovely Mommy Heroes that wanted the best for their children and wanted us to adore their child as much as they did.

In the spring of that year, I was working with half the afternoon class on language skills while Oneita was supervising hands-on activities with math manipulatives. Our particular program mandated the use of a language-development system called DISTAR that was didactic and teacher-focused. There was a large spiral bound book that had illustrations of things like hands, front and back, fingers and thumbs. And this big book had a script that teachers had to read for each lesson, to make sure that every child in the DISTAR program got exactly the same measured dose of language and were taught the same exact things. So the teacher would recite

This is a hand.
What is this?

and the children would respond in unison:

This is a hand.

Then the teacher would say:
This is a finger.
This is the palm of the hand.
This is a thumb.
This is the index finger.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

and the children would regurgitate
everything back in response to the question
"What is this?"

Well, sometimes these sessions seemed to go on and on, especially for me because it was pretty boring reading from a script. This one particular day, however, I kept noticing that one of my little princesses kept squirming and squirming as she sat on the floor. So I asked, "Juwana, do you have to go to the bathroom?" No. The squirming continued. The question was asked multiple times and met with denial each time. And the lesson went on.... and on.... and on.

Eventually, it just got to be too much. A puddle started forming under her and quickly spread to a lake of amazing dimensions. The lesson ended instantaneously, as we scrambled to get kids out of the way of the encroaching floodwaters. Juwana was rushed to the "cloakroom" where there were lavatories and sinks and a box of emergency clothing stashed for just such emergencies. The custodians were summoned and arrived with mops and disinfectant. No big deal! Just one of the hazards associated with four-year-olds who just don't want to stop what they're doing for something as mundane as emptying their bladder in a designated container that is closeted away from the action.

But obviously, Juwana went home wearing someone else's clothing, with her rinsed-out adorable outfit in a plastic bag. And obviously, her doting mother asked what happened. And worrying that we were shocked or dismayed or somehow aggravated with her angel for answering the call of nature in such a public manner, she decided she would have to somehow make amends.

The next morning, when we opened the classroom door, there were Juwana and her mother. In her mother's arms was a bouquet of lilacs, stems wrapped in damp newspaper and slipped inside a garbage bag. To say it was a bouquet is somewhat misleading -- it looked like she had stripped every fragrant blossom from an ancient, old-growth lilac bush. Her arms could barely stretch around her cargo. "This is for you," she said. "I'm so embarrassed."

And so, even now, when the oldest of Juwana's children must be graduating from middle school, when my lilac bushes bloom, the fire of memory is ignited. When the scent of lilacs fills the air, I think of that darling little girl and her very lovely mother. And I smile as I remember.


will said...

Very nice, well told.

julochka said...

what a great story!

i love lilacs too, but ours are about a week away from blooming. :-)

rebecca said...

thank you for the scent of lilacs..and the love that permeates from this day.
your love of so many resides in the moment of now.
thank you for including us.


Anonymous said...

it's amazing the kinds of memories we keep within us, and the things that trigger them into life again. i love the smell of lilacs.

Meri said...

Memories do get encoded and retrieved in interesting ways --- often smells trigger long buried memories. Sounds, too -- there are some songs I hear that bring back specific memories of people and what we were doing when the song played on the radio or at a party or dance. It seems almost like the sensory piece is necessary for storage and retrieval.

Delwyn said...

Hi Meri

I enjoyed your story and it brought back early teaching experiences I had.

Memory is so fickle and easily triggered by smell and touch. I hate cigarette smoke usually but some times I catch a whiff and it takes me back to my childhood when my dad smoked...and I breathe it in deeply to revitalise the memory.

It is also why trauma victims can swing easily into flashbacks.

Love the lilacs too
Happy days

P>S> the word Verif is COUGH, must have been that cigarette smoke...