Once upon a time, on a little island off the coast of Maine, I worked at a daycare center. It was a really fun job, almost as much fun as my three week stint making pizzas. Mostly, I got to play all day. I happily rode my bike to the dock every morning and boarded the 5:45 ferry. Most of the time, it was just me and the island mail man on the boat. I often shared my thermos of coffee with him. During the winter, it was still dark when I left my house, and when I pedaled past the time and temperature clock on the top of the Casco Northern Bank, I would think that it was a warm day if the temperature was in double digits. I used to wear a red and gold ski mask under my bike helmet, and sometimes, the eye holes would shift a little and it would be really hard to see. But luckily I always wore fingerless gloves under my down mittens, so the problem was easily remedied.
The kids at the daycare were described as typical island kids. I wasn’t really sure what that meant – mostly, to me, they were just like any of the other kids I had known. They painted and played with blocks and rode trikes on the playground. We read books – some of our favorites were about a little boy names Alfie who lived on Trotter Street and often wore his boots on the wrong feet. Alfie and his friends had very cool four year old adventures. So did we, at the daycare. During the warmer months, we often went to the the island swamp to look for water beasties. We built massive sand castles on the beach, decorating them with shells and wild flowers. We grew radishes in a tiny garden, and ate them, only once, for snack. Another time, just before Thanksgiving, we cut up a really huge pumpkin and each kid went home with a pie they had baked themselves.
The kids also told stories and corny jokes, told on each other, and sometimes, told lies. Because they were typical kids, their lies were typical kid lies – lies so that they wouldn’t get into trouble or so they would get what they wanted. Luckily, the philosophy of the center was that, as much as possible, the kids got what they wanted. And there weren’t a lot of arbitrary rules, so they hardly ever got into trouble.
During the three years that I was there, I worked hard to be the kind of person the children could trust. I didn’t lie to them or pretend that they were invisible or try to trick them into doing what I wanted them to do. Mostly, what I wanted them to do was to play and laugh and explore and ask lots of questions. They did, and I did, and we spent many happy days together. I think, looking back, that part of the reason they trusted me was that I acknowledged that, however much fun our toys and however many exciting the activities we planned, any of them, given a choice, would have chosen to be at home with their parents. I did not take that personally, even though occasionally, my feelings were hurt. I tried, instead, to make the time that they were with us as enjoyable and full of fun as I could. I’m not saying that I never got irritated or frustrated. I’m not saying that I was perfect. But I did my best, and I expected them to do their best, and for the most part, we trusted each other.
That was a long time ago. The children I worked with then are grown and probably have children of their own. Many of them probably do not even remember my name. But I hope that they do remember that person who baked with them and read to them and rubbed their backs at naptime. I hope they remember feeling safe and warm and valued, and I hope that they help their own children feel like that, too.