Spelling I-D-E-N-T-I-T-Y

An energetic and organized person somewhere has proba­bly spelled out the nearly infi­nite ways children can spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day: sledding, ice skating, play­ing with favorite toys, taunting broth­ers and sisters.

Somewhere, toward the end of the list, would be this:

“Trying to find healing and hope in a restrictive residential treatment program for children who, with rare exception, have experi­enced severe abuse and neglect.”

As a wannabe mom, I feel a certain pull to­ward wannabe sons and daughters – some of whom will go back home, and some of whom will not.

So, in this week between two of the biggest national holidays of the year, I’ve been sharing creative arts in a resi­dential treatment facility for children. In today’s classes, I was given roughly a billion pieces of invisible gold, some hard-earned laughs, and a very delib­erate cold shoulder.

I have met characters, invented by the children, such as a magician who can make a staff person’s quarter dis­appear (and reappear, thank goodness), Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (with hand-drawn Scooby snacks), and a pirate-doctor (equally likely to rob you of your treasure as heal you when you’re unwell).

The most popular costumes, by far, are the police officer costume and the pirate costume – the law-keeper and the lawbreaker, the protector and the rebel who needs no protection. What will their future be, I wonder? Which side of this balance will they settle on? After all they’ve seen, after all they’ve never seen, how much of their future is theirs to choose?

One day early on, we drew and wrote our wishes. In most other classes, in most other settings, the concept of a wish can be difficult. How do I convey that I don’t just mean something you want to have, but something you hope to experience? In the classes this week, I seemed to make myself perfectly clear. One child wished for home. An­other wished that his head would pop off – and be replaced by another.

My heart dropped when I heard this sullen child say those words. Before meeting the students, I had asked for a little background on each one. But even so, I knew that I didn’t really need prior information. Their histo­ries are written in their faces, their bodies, their gestures. That’s the way our histories are; that’s the way my history is. I carry it all over, no mat­ter how much I’ve ever wished for a brand new past or a brand new start. No matter how much I’ve ever wished I could be a dif­ferent person in a different place or time, I continue to be Karen. (As in K-A-R-E-N.)

I delight in learning how to spell each child’s name. I delight in counting all the A-E-I-O-U-and-sometimes-Y’s. I delight in their de­light, as they teach me, “No e’s. Just an i!” As I learn to spell their names, I’m not really talking about the spell­ings of their names. What I’m really saying is, I see you. I notice you. You are really here. You have letters in your name. They are yours. They belong to you. No one else can have them. They stand for the place you have every right to take in this world.

So tomorrow, when I work with the C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N once again, I will challenge them to create not just one, not just two, but three whole lines that their chosen character says. Maybe someone will make a series of arrests; maybe someone will make a series of robberies.

Maybe someone will look back someday and say: She wasn’t trying to help us all be better actors or better drawers or better inventors of props. She wasn’t really concerned, in her heart of hearts, what my character said or wore or called himself. That didn’t really matter, not so very much.

All that really mattered was who we were.

(Karen Van Fossan lives, hikes, and works for peace in Bismarck, ND. She is a first-year seminary student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, preparing for ordination as a Unitari­an-Universalist minister. She blogs at birdperson.wordpress.com and can be reached at karenvanfossan@gmail.com)

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