Yesterday, I waited on the train — having got to the platform early — and in the seats nearby sat a mother and her young son. He was about two, or just about three. I was tired but not too tired to see that a player of the world had just boarded. They spoke bits of Chinese, maybe, and he spoke some pieces of English. He was bright and alert and happy. I looked over and caught his eye. His mother was busying herself at the pushchair. The boy had that quizzical look on his face, that look I’m used to: so I closed one eye at him, opened it up, closed the other. After a second or so he repeated the gestures, only with the sort of careful exaggerations that young children often apply to their imitations of adults. I smiled. It was a mutual hello.
I write this here because I find these minor moments extremely beautiful, significant, full. For the rest of the journey we made no more contact with one another: only when I was packing my bag to get ready to go, down at his level as his mother got the pushchair and child ready to disembark, did he flash a look to say something along the lines of ‘You get that I want to play with this tambourine here, don’t you?’ It was small and plastic and, frankly, not worth the hassle his mother had imbued into not taking it out of the cellophane packet for him. He didn’t kick up too much of a fuss: he just looked at me, and that was that.
Moments, as I’ve written about plenty in these posts, are worth more than many will ever know: first they have to be seen though. This is a small aside. The thought of the boy on the train, ‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’ (being my story’s working title), led me to sit down here and think about other small appreciations that have taken place in the past couple of weeks. Being so fleeting, these moments of appreciation — from child to adult — are registered on some level at the time in question; when taken as pieces in something a little larger though, it becomes clearer that there are other levels.
I may be thinking in such ways at the moment because I still have several Tove Jansson books filtering around in my recent reading experience: that sparse, clean Scandinavian writing style, extolling the beauty of seemingly slight instances yet, collectively, beneath it all is something flowing a little deeper. I shall need some slight examples, and here they are:
Once, this week, a seven year old came to me and held up her finger to show me a paper cut. The line was bright red but not bleeding. ‘What can I do about this?’ I asked her, whilst also empathising. ‘You could get me a plaster,’ she said. I was in the middle of doing three or four things at once and I needed to do all of them together, including find her a plaster, or I’d forget one of them. She followed me round for a few minutes and I reminded her that I hadn’t forgotten. After a while we checked her forms and I figured ‘yes, this is fine’. I found a plaster and the paper cut was covered over. She didn’t look at me but, as she turned to leave the room and as I turned to throw away the paper rubbish, she gave the slightest thank you.
Some of the older children come to the after school session later than the others: they have school clubs on before they get to us, and so the rest of the children and us are all settled into play and observing by the time these older children get there. This week, I wandered back inside after having been out observing the general flow of the playground, and in the corner one of the older boys was slouched in a chair, relaxed, feet up, picking at a plate of food. He raised his chin to me as he saw me. I put up my thumb to him. A week or so earlier, one of the older girls was lying on the sofa as I walked in, me not having seen her arrive either. She put up her thumb at me.
The other day, I was sat on the tyre swing observing another older girl poking around with an old umbrella she’d found. She stood up on the bench and made an exaggerated play of preparing herself to jump off with the umbrella, which she then did. She turned to me and said that I should watch this. So I did. There followed a small experiment in how long it might take her to reach the ground with and without the umbrella. ‘Like Mary Poppins?’ I said, still sat idly by on the tyre swing. I don’t think she got the reference. She showed me that, look, it was quicker to the ground without the umbrella (she’d taken a smaller arc of a leap to demonstrate this though). She said for me to follow her, and she went and stood up on one of the fixed structures around the corner, five feet or so off the ground, looking to repeat the experiment (as if, in my mind, gravity was differently predisposed here!) We had a conversation about stopwatches and about my archaic little mobile phone that she couldn’t believe was older than she was. All these little interactions were wrapped up in a common appreciation of equals, or that’s how it felt to me.
One boy, a boy I wrote about recently (he who had perceived me as mean to his friend), didn’t look at me as I put the juice out so he and the others around him had easy reach of it. He gulped it down, saying a straight (that is, not sarcastic or otherwise negatively loaded) thank you. It was the tiniest little touch to reach me.
All these slightest stories (‘the boy with the exaggerated gestures’, ‘the plaster girl who didn’t look up with her thank you’, ‘the thumbs-up older children’, ‘the equal-umbrella girl’, ‘the boy who once thought me mean’) are stories that are greater than they might at first seem. That’s the way I see them, anyway. Of course I’m not going out of my way to make children say thank you, or to ‘respect me’ out of force, or to listen to me because I have something to say or ‘things they have to know’: these children’s various appreciations have come in their own time. To them they may just be the moment that has now passed (which they are), but to me they also build into a greater story.
The thought of the interaction with the boy on the train, the boy with the exaggerated gestures, can also be analogous: there’s a whole different level of view to be seen with one eye closed, albeit briefly.
Playworkings will be taking a week off to do the tourist thing (maybe a couple of weeks, but we’ll see).