In high school, one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Wheelock, gave me this compliment, "Helena, you've got the most child-like spirit. Don't ever lose it." At the time I was 17 and very very interested in losing it. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to see me as kid. I was a grown woman, damn it! On my grown-ass way to New York Ci-Taaay, to conquer the Big Apple in one monstrous gulp with my all-consuming grown upness. Hmph!
Anyway, after a decade or so of pretending to know what the hell I was doing, I learned pretty quickly that good ole Mrs. Wheelock, quite possibly the most intermittently inappropriate and effectual English teacher ever, was totally right. Clinging, not to innocence, but a sense of excitement about the everyday in the way of healthy and happy children is a must if you're going to survive the crushing monotony of being grown.
Aside from Mrs. Wheelock the best teachers of this same mantra are my "nieces" and "nephew," quotes added only because I am a biological only child but a spiritual sister to several women.
Last weekend one of my sisters asked if I'd take her kids for a night so that she and her husband could celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary. Only after I texted her back "hells yeah" did I realize what just happened. I'd have three actual children in my care for about 12 hours. Like they'd be in my house looking at stuff and touching stuff.
When they arrived, Nancy*, 11, Amy, 8, and Kevin, 5, surveyed the scene with expert eyes, clocking all the angles like professional hitmen. Kevin, my official godson, clung to his mother before she left, "Don't leave me here, please," his eyes seemed to plead. As did his actual mouth. "The girls," who I'd won over long ago with my "cool aunt" B-boy stance, were equally apprehensive.
"So what are we going to do?" I had no clue.
I made a "no noodles" lasagna for dinner just so I could do a big reveal at the end of dinner -- "Oh, that awesomeness? It's ZUCCHINNI!" At least that's how it went in my head. In real life Kevin took one look at the oozey block on his plate, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "YUCK!" It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't felt so passionately about it.
"Yuck, yuck, yuck," he repeated even as I convinced him to try a few bites.
I was about to just crawl under the dining room table in defeat when I realized that "Yuck" is just a really fun word to say.
"YUCK!" Kevin smiled, kicking his feet.
Y-sounds are always a good time, the way they tickle the throat, and that hard "k" at the end is like a verbal karate chop. Yuh-UCK. This kid was having fun, playing with his words, while I was seething, stuck in some idiotic grown-up preoccupation with what the word might mean -- judgment, failure.
I took a bite of the lasagna, and you know what, "Yuck!" summed it up pretty nicely. Also see delicious, cheesy, gooey and wham-o! But yuck worked, too.
The rest of the night and the next morning continued to ride that same wave of "whatever's clever." We made sugar cookies that I was planning to decorate sparingly for another friend who'd just had a baby, but then eight-year-old Amy put "nipples" on the teddy bear and all caution was thrown to the wind.
At the dog park the next morning Nancy, 11, who plays dress up in being older from time to time, was very vigilant about poop. But she played tag with the rest of us, stopping every few rounds to check the bottom of her Keds, saying, "I don't know how you guys aren't concerned!"
When they left that afternoon, I felt a pretty sharp loss, not just for the random hilarious moments like when Amy told me she didn't want to "smell awkward" after I tried to get her to use Shea Butter soap, but also for how careful they were with their childhoods. They knew how special it was. They knew that a lightning round of Uno was more than busy work before bed. That dancing down the stairs was the quickest way to wake up in the morning. That life was actually a good fucking time, except when you don't let a five-year-old wear the magical "Pirate shirt" that changes colors in the sun -- then life is full of tears.
Still it was an eye-opening experience. A reminder that I should need a time out from my grown-upness every now and then and remember what Mrs. Wheelock told me.
*Names have been changed.