Math, Recess, Thanatology

Jonathan’s class did cinquain poetry as part of their Getting to Know You start of the year. Each child wrote their name as the first line, then two adjectives for themselves, three verbs, a four word statement, concluding at last with a nickname they like. Jonathan is a diligent, grade-level learner, but sometimes, his autism gets in the way. At his teacher’s request, I pulled him to examine the second line: he’d picked “fish” and “red”.

“Jonathan, an adjective is a describing word. It helps a person know you better.”

“I like fish. And red is my favorite color.”

On some days, Teacher Beth is utterly able to take a child’s statements and find the right place for them, so that everything is validated and nothing taken out, and then lead the child organically into richer, deeper knowledge, making of the work sample a beautiful encapsulation of the dialog of learning. These are, alas, the days in which a) the assignment allows the kid more than two words and B) those words aren’t already written in marker.

End result: Jonathan was allowed to turn in that finished (erroneous) cinquain, once he demonstrated to me that he knew what an adjective was. I led him through Grammar 101, and he remembered quite quickly once he had a few examples. “So, I’m not going to make you do the cinquain again. But if you had to, what are two adjectives you’d pick for yourself?”

He thought for awhile. “Helpful.” I agreed: “Adjectives can be things we can see when we look at something. I see you often doing helpful things, like cleaning up. I’d definitely use “helpful” to describe you as a person.”

A furrowed brow. “Helpful and…worried.”

“Hmmm… Jonathan, tell me more. I don’t disagree, but that’s not something I’ve seen much, when I look at you.”

“But I am worried.”

“Hmm…worried about what?”

“I’m worried that I’m gonna die.”

Somehow, with words I don’t quite remember in a sequence I can’t recall, we got to the bottom of it: Jonathan isn’t a hypochondriac, and he “knows” it won’t happen for a very long time, but the concept of human mortality is sinking in for him, this year, and he spends a fair bit of time thinking about it, and it’s often in the back of his mind. There’s reading, and PE, and lunchtime, and death: he may not look worried, but the worry’s still there.

“Jonathan, have you told your grown-ups about this?”

“No. It’s a secret. It’s like my secret. I can’t tell them.”

“My friend, I think you should tell them. Because that’s not the kind of secret a person needs to keep. Your feelings are important–they don’t have to be secrets.” I was as straight with him as I knew how to be, with an eight year old in my office and Church and State in my brain. “The thing you’re worried about: lots of people worry about it. They think about it, a lot. There are things people think that can make them less worried, and some of those things are just for your family to share with you. I can’t tell you the things that might make you less worried. But your family can, and they’d want to. So I hope you let them know.”

When I (sorry Jonathan) let his parents know about the budding thanatologist they have in their midst, they assume that it’s because he’s been spending extra time with his maternal grandmother, who has been having medical problems of late. They both promise me they won’t tell him that I told them about what he told me (this way, I believe, lies absolute madness, but I trust these adults and think they’d like to be prepared). It could be the grandmother, but I reckon it might not.

I remember that Fear of Death showed up for me at the precise age of seven, because it dawned on me that I’d never heard of a person reaching the age of one hundred and seven, and that obviously meant that I wouldn’t live another hundred years. The grasp that children get on difficult realities is often less logical and more tenuous than we’d like it to be. What matters, I think, is that we adults keep listening–and remain open to helping as much as we can.

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