What makes children so brave? Why are they so buoyant in their souls? Here’s a clue:
It isn’t what they believe in.
If you went to any young niece or nephew of yours and said, “Hey, kid.”
“My name’s Peter.”
“I got a question for you, Peter. Did you know that, one day, you’re going to die?”
Peter’s eyes would fill with tears as he thought back to his dearly departed Glubby the goldfish or Kippy the cat. Terrified, he would say,
“That’s going to happen to me?
“I’m going to go blind and deaf and get run over by my father in the driveway? I’m going drown in my own waste because someone neglected their responsibilities and never cleaned my tank?”
Then you would tell him, “Yes, nephew. Unless you die first on the inside, like me and almost everyone else. In that case, you die twice.”
The Concert Of Death
It happened at an elementary and middle school choral concert.
I was in the gymnasium to hear my nieces sing. Since they were not in kindergarten, I glared at the kindergarteners who made their way toward the stage, and I tried to understand how anyone could love a child who isn’t related to me.
Here’s what I noticed about the kindergarteners:
They wandered on stage as carefree and independently as fireflies, gliding along without a worry in the world, as if each one was in a room by themselves, no audience of hundreds, no one watching them.
The children found their places, and then, through their entire set, they never once stopped moving:
- They swayed
- They wiggled
- They spun slowly around and looked up at the ceiling, tracking various floating nothings
- Their mouths hung wide open, whether they were singing or not
- Occasionally, they spotted someone familiar in the audience then reached out to them, like Gatsby reaching for Daisy, and they waved in a way that looked like they were crunching their mother and father to death with their hands.
When they were done singing, or whatever you want to call it, first graders took their place.
And it was the same thing: the wiggling, swaying, spinning, the staring. And a bonus: the drama of a nose picker. Will he nibble what he has so vigorously excavated? Also, lots of mouth breathing, a burp, and a kid toying with his outfit, rolling his sweater up to his throat, showing off his bare belly.
Second grade: same. Wiggling, spinning, swaying, mouth-breathing, staring, fingers in noses. And look here, one unsocialized child has her back to the audience the entire time. And look there, a kid is talking to his friend who doesn’t seem to hear him. The talker doesn’t care. He’s just talking because there’s an ear shape in the air beside his head.
Third grade: a change.
The wiggling was there, but subdued, coming out in little jolts and shocks, like people trying to keep themselves awake. One of my nieces was in this group. I hoped she would spin, free as a whirlwind. Instead, she oscillated like her comrades, reminding me of a security camera. The sweater rolling? Gone. The nose picking? No more.
Then, with the fourth grade, it happened.
The children did not walk to their preordained positions. They marched. And when they faced the audience, the straight-armed crunch-waving was gone. If they waved at all, it was a tight shiver-hand, held low, as if it embarrassed them, as if their hand was a little life they were holding underwater, drowning it.
Beyond the strangled waving, the children did not move.
Where was the wiggle?
Where was the sway, the spin?
Where was the freedom from self-consciousness, the liberty to search the self and dig out a salty snack?
What had happened to them?
I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
Someone had told them: mom or dad; a bad uncle; a pastor; maybe the conductor; and the children believed.
I could see on their faces a dead cat, a dead dog, and bobbing in their dimly shining eyes, generations of expired goldfish, and at the end of this long chain of foreshadowing, there lay their own bodies,
The eerily-still children had been stabilized by the sobering knowledge of death.
Childhood is a motorist who parks the car for a snooze. But he parks too close to the junkyard of adulthood.
While he sleeps, the claw finds him, lifts him, and it sets him down gently into the hydraulic embrace of the car crusher.
And what’s this? The cube bleeds? Oh no! The motorist!
Childhood was sleeping in that car.
What once was a car as carefree as a bird is now an immovable cube.
When I saw what had happened to the fourth-grade children, I wanted to run on stage and save them. Like Elliott in E.T. racing from table to table in the biology classroom, twisting the lids off jars, shaking out the dissection-bound frogs, and yelling, “Run for your life. Back to the forest! Run!”
But I could not free the children.
It was too late.
If I freed them, if I helped them escape to the forest, or the nearby river, I could not pluck death from their minds even there. They would stand on the riverbank, staring at their own reflections wiggling in the current, a wiggle no longer indicating life, but decay, the wiggle of decomposition’s dance, and they would hauntingly sing in unison the song of all grownups:
[to be sung in monotone voices]
Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have led
With its crystal tide forever
Ours are the voices of the dead.
The secret of childhood magic is this:
They do not know they are going to die. They don’t believe in their own death.
Therefore, they think and speak and play like immortals.
This is why they’re so fearless and open and hilarious and powerful, and it’s why the poet claims that children trail clouds of glory wherever they go.
We were like this once.
And I believe we can be immortal again. Not all the time, but now and then I think it’s a healthy practice to shuffle off our belief in death. Like playing dress-up. Except instead of piling on the layers, this is a brutally heavy winter coat we lay aside for a while.
See me in a Zoom committee meeting.
See my computer screen full of faces, cubes, children smashed square by the cruel pressures of adulthood.
These dead-serious grownups engage in small talk while we wait the eternity it takes for late, egomaniac committee members to arrive.
For small talk appetizers they discuss enrollment practices of rival institutions, then they sink into the main course: matriculation irregularities. They’re having fun now and they move on to dessert: discussing fiscal retention incumbents, curricular malfeasance, and the macro-partisanship paradigm.
As I listen, I begin to wiggle.
I turn back and forth in my rotating chair.
My colleagues see my wiggling and twisting. This sparks in their minds a distant memory, and slowly, they begin to oscillate. Look at them go, swinging back and forth in their chairs. The movement triggers primal muscle memory, which sends their minds back even further into the past.
I see one mouth drop open and breathe freely. Fingers rise toward faces, twitching. My friends, is there something in those noses you wish to liberate?
Suddenly the academic dean spins all the way around.
I see a smile emerge on another colleague’s face. This is the first full, unfalsified smile I’ve seen in what feels like years. A smile connected to something down deep, an old forgetfulness in the heart. Others smile. Others twist in their chairs. Death is slipping away. In its passing rises a remembrance of life everlasting, and soon the Zoom meeting is full of spinning and wiggling and smiling and waving the crunch-wave at one another, at friends, and a colleague rolls up his tie and lets it fall, rolls it up and lets it fall, and another, a department head, begins spinning around in his chair faster and faster while making the sounds of a racecar shifting gears…
Do we need an exorcist?
Can I get a witness?
This is the greatest meeting of my life.
And before it ends, before they sign off and step back into the car-crusher’s hydraulic press, which murmurs,
“Memento mori…memento mori,”
I shout to them, “Run for your lives. Back to the forest! Get to the river! Run!”
And we all go together, and for the rest of the afternoon, we are immortal.