On Friday (Valentine's Day), I was asked to substitute assistant teach in a kindergarten classroom at the charter school that had employed me for five years. I spend a lot of time at this school anyway, since it is one of the closest approximations to a home I have ever really known.
Considering that Valentine's Day is a holiday usually reserved for ire and spite, it should be noted that the act of spending it with excitable, impressionable five-year-olds who have never seen quite so much candy in their lives could un-curmudgeon a Republican in a retirement home. I knew this walking in. I was probably the only twenty-something single girl in the state of Louisiana who was actually looking forward to the day.
And I was right to: everything was just as delightful as you imagine it would be. All the girls showed up to school with comically large red-and-pink bows in their hair, or heart-covered socks. Several of the boys, embracing the duties of manhood, told me (with great ennui) who they had crushes on, and asked whether or not they should try to kiss them. Most of the children kept forgetting that the day was "Valentine's Day" and called it "Thanksgiving" instead. (This actually got me to thinking: maybe we should switch the two. It would be great if Thanksgiving were a little more like Valentine's Day [all about the loving aspects of giving thanks, and not so much about the mass genocide] and Valentines' Day were a little more like Thanksgiving [no school, lots and lots of family]).
It does not take much for a five-year-old to fall in love with you. All you have to do is give her a sticker, or do a dance at his lunch table, and you're automatically a hero. Sometimes that's just what you need as a jaded grown-up on a holiday that tells you you're not good enough if you don't have a singular, specific, jewelry-exchanging love in your life.
Before lunch, the lead teacher read a story about a classroom of animals giving each other valentines. These books always kind of bother me: the main character was a possum, but the teacher was an overweight blackbird, and the two tertiary characters were a rabbit and a bobcat. Don't these authors understand how food chains work? Also, that poor possum is at a HUGE disadvantage for having to go to school during the day. He'd do much better with night classes.
Anyway, I was sitting on a blue chair, listening to the story with 30 (less fazed) children, when one of them pulled a chair up next to mine and rested his head on my shoulder.
I am a very touchy-feely person. I want to touch everyone and be touched by everyone, and yes, I know how that sounds. I don't know how to make it sound any different. I spend most of the time wishing everyone in my life would just get in a big pile and hug each other all at once. Never mind that this a logistical nightmare. I still think it's a nice idea.
When I was very young, I would cry deep into the night. Sometimes my mom would hear me, and she'd come and sit on my bed, and I'd put my head on her thigh and she'd push the hot, snot-drenched hair off my face and past my ears. I understand that this is pretty gross. It also is the best feeling in the world: to have someone push your hair back behind your ears and gently, momentarily away from the scalp that tethers it.
So when this kid put his head on my shoulder, I put my arm around him. And when he lay his head on my thigh, I instinctively pushed his long hair behind his ears, just the way my mom always did. We sat and listened to the story like that for a while; he got very still and smiley. I do the hair-brushing trick with lots of kids; it works especially well (surprise, surprise) when a kid is having a tantrum at school and won't calm down. But for some reason, this kid, whom I did not really know, seemed to fall into it more than any child I'd ever spent time with. This is hard to explain. It felt like a kind of unreserved, almost familial love.
Later, on the playground, I watched the same kid jump off the slide a few times. (You're definitely not supposed to jump off the slide.) I pointed him out to the lead teacher and said that I didn't feel like asking him to stop because I had this inexplicable soft spot for him in my heart.
She said, "Yeah. You know, last summer his mother passed away."
This is not uncommon. Working with students who suffer primarily from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder means that most of them are not unfamiliar with death. But there was something about this particular kid. It seemed so unfair. He was just so young, and it seemed so clear that all he wanted was that patented sort of mom-love that comes late in the night when you are sobbing, and only from moms. And more than that: it was that a year ago, he took it for granted. Now he will never have it again.
As I was leaving the school on Friday, I saw a student in the office who had been in my second grade classroom the first year I worked there. Now he's in sixth grade, and he's huge. I waved; he leapt up like he was still seven and said, "MS. JOHNSON!" And then he gave me the kind of hug that sixth graders are supposed to be too cool to give. When I'd met this student first, I didn't imagine him as a twelve-year-old. He was seven forever to me; since I had never watched a child grow up, I didn't know what it looked like, and, though illogical, I didn't expect it to happen.
The kids I spent Valentine's Day with this year will grow, too. They'll get tall, and cool, and they'll stop wanting to hug you just because you brought stickers.
The thing about love is the same as the thing about life: it is simultaneously delicate and strong. Just as we take for granted that our bodies will keep us alive and protect us from harm, we take for granted the love that's all around us all the time, invisible and deep, coloring the way we see the world. To hold on to either is impossible.
But so too is it impossible to let go.