Children and psychopaths

In the U.S. we tend to segregate ourselves into discrete age groups. Children eat their Thanksgiving fare at the “kid’s table” while adults chow down and sip wine in the dining room. Grandparents move to retirement homes. Undergraduates can effortlessly spend all four years without interacting with a single person more than three years older or younger than they are.

So I find myself fortunate that, over the past two years, I have had a chance to interact with a variety of different children in different contexts.

My youngest brother (in the photo above) just turned two, and watching him grow up has been inspiring, illuminating, and exhausting. The first year was a slow and tedious crawl — the kid seemed like more of an eating-and-pooping machine than a human being — but then this cascade of physical development transpired, and suddenly he was climbing onto chairs, scrawling abstract masterpieces, obsessing over everything with four wheels, and chattering in an amalgam of words and baby lingo. His linguistic capacities are enchanting. We have daily jumping parties on my bed and chat about Lightning McQueen, mostly.

For the past year, I worked at a preschool in Columbia Heights where… let’s just say that the one day that we wanted to serve snack outside, we could not because in the adjacent parking lot there were two suspects handcuffed against a police car. I met some eccentric characters (both teachers and students), learned tons of Spanish, and started to understand early childhood education and the developmental stages of children.

A couple of months ago I went to Honduras, where we visited a public orphanage in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in the country. I almost wish I had not gone there, because the memory weighs so heavily on me.The stark white prison-like condition of the facility. The way the young boys, when I hugged them, grasped me so tightly and desperately with their spindly arms. The one boy who physically attacked me when I tried to let him go so I could attend to another child. I wished that I had one hundred hands, so that I could have hugged all of them. How can I describe the physical and emotional deficit that those kids experience every day? They all lacked affection, stimulation, and nutrition.  I did what I could with my two hands that afternoon, standing in the sweltering midday sun for hours pushing four kids at once on a swingset. Telling them how that they were flying out of the orphanage, to Tegucigalpa, to the sky, to the moon.

Now I work at a Montessori-type children’s center in Mount Pleasant. The commute is absolutely brutal, taking at least an hour and a half on bike, metro, and foot. But it’s a beautiful center, in this huge hacienda-style complex set in a woody enclave above the street (so no risk of law enforcement activities interrupting outside play time). A full eighty percent of children enrolled there are from families at or below the poverty line.

It amazes me that I am getting paid to play with children practically all day and improve my Spanish. I dunno about you, but getting home tired and sweaty with wood chips crammed into every crevasse of my body is infinitely preferable to a desk job.

Sometimes, the mass of children clamoring to hold one of my hands remind me of the Honduran orphans, or how my littlest brother screams “Kay-ee” up the stairs when he wants to play with me, and I think about how all kids really want the same things, and how kids are a microcosm of us adults. And then I want a thousand hands, enough for all of the annoying, tiresome, perfect kids that I fall in love with.

It’s all kind-of zen, dood.

Speaking of children and education, here is Sir Ken Robinson’s second TED talk. The first one was preeeetty good BUT in the follow-up his arguments, humor, anecdotes, and sense of timing are absolutely impeccable.

And FYI, the title is a reference to a bit of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding that I always found peculiar, where, as part of his argument against innate ideas, he refers to “children, idiots, etc.”


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