The other day I was in the library, in town, and I saw a child I’d known at a setting a few months ago. She’s about five years old. We looked at each other and I knew I recognised her, though it took me a few seconds to make sure. She was looking at me and I don’t know whether she was double-checking like I was, or whether she recognised me straight away and was just waiting for me to click in. Either way, the point of this story is that, when I had clicked in, she was happy, smiley, saying ‘hi’ and my name; I couldn’t remember her name though. This troubled me slightly.
I knew that I knew her, and I could remember some of her play. I remember her little sister, who was there at the library too, and I remembered her name – probably because, her being just two or three years of age, I remembered her poking a stick in a fire bowl I took to the setting once, before I worked there – her mother looking on, and me thinking, ‘excellent, a parent who’s cool with a younger child at the fire bowl.’
Now, the five year old (let’s call her Isla, for argument’s sake) – the fact that I couldn’t remember her name, when I’d spent time with her, troubled me. It’s all centred on my thinking on playworkers’ relationships with children. I do feel, and always have felt, deeply privileged to work with and for children. In places where play can happen, the child-adult relationship can be an exquisite thing. In my experience, children value the adult who ‘sees’ them. That is, from the very simple act of the adult getting down on their knees to communicate (my knees have taken some batterings on some hard floors over the years!), to the more abstract implicit comprehension that ‘this adult is acceptable.’ Some adults, to children, are merely tolerated; some are openly despised. Back to the positive, I would go as far as to say that some adults are regarded in the very highest esteem, even ‘loved’. Many children have love, and we adults can corrupt that word with our tedious manipulation of perceived sordid interpretation. What we can learn from the children . . .
I digress. In the library, Isla said ‘hi’ with a big smile and a wave from a short distance away (she even seemed to recognise the adult social conformity of adults who are adults in public spaces, as opposed to adults who are ‘playful others’ in the play setting).
Was the fact that I’d forgotten Isla’s name an indication that my play setting relationship with her wasn’t strong enough? That is, I had clearly affected her positively, but did she – quiet as she is – just get absorbed at the fringes of the chaotic swill of the other, more dominant characters of children there? Was the fact that I’d forgotten her name just an indication of time passing? If that’s the case, why can I still remember the names of children from twenty years ago?
Another small story digression. A couple of years ago, I was in a supermarket in a town a fair few miles away from home and other places I’d previously worked. I became aware that myself and my colleague, having been on the road and nipping in for lunch, were being trailed by a huge security guard. All of a sudden I heard: ‘Excuse me . . .’ The guard looked at me and asked me if I was who he thought me to be. He was right. Who was he? It turned out to be a former child I knew, when working in another city, who was obviously a lot smaller when I last saw him! My point: he’d grown, but I knew who he was when he told me his name, and I could see the child that he was in the adult that he’d become.
Time doesn’t always make us forget. Why did I not remember Isla’s name? Did I not work hard enough, well enough, freely enough when I was with her? Was I preoccupied by staffing matters, by resourcing and environmental modification matters? Was I just not being a good enough playworker? Or was I so wrapped up in trying to be ‘a playworker’ that I forgot to relate?
I really don’t know. I think I might know Isla’s actual name, but when this happens in everyday meetings with adults, I play through the possible names in my head (running through the letters of the alphabet till I get to one that ‘feels’ right for the name’s starting letter – I can’t explain it any other way – then I run through possible names till I get to one that also ‘feels’ right). The name I have for Isla kind of feels OK, but it doesn’t feel totally right.
Maybe, when I unlock why exactly I feel a little troubled at not remembering her name, I’ll be able to unlock her name. It’ll all kick in.
At the library, I smiled back at this five year old, and her mother, and said ‘hi’ to Isla with a small and also slightly distant wave, as adults who know about interactions with children in public spaces know to do. I would have had no qualms about getting on my knees there and then, in the middle of the library, if I’d remembered Isla’s name but, somehow, it didn’t feel right: a piece was missing.
I don’t know if Isla understood, but I suspect she had an inkling. My experience tells me that some children have uncanny comprehension in matters of small pieces, like names, missing.