A Minute of Anger

It’s been one of the greatest privileges in my life thus far to get to know Zoe better day by day. Thanks to the wealth of information and support available to us, Oliver and I feel pretty well-equipped to meet her needs without interfering with her natural growth. It’s stunning to watch a child develop almost entirely without fear.

While largely uninterested in playing other toddlers, Zoe loves to babble conversations with adults and people watch the other kids at the park. Then there’s neat-freak tendencies that compel her to pile stray socks she finds around the house on the shelf above the radiator and gather her toys on the backs of dining room chairs, like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter. It’s clear the fiercely independent streak was passed on to her given that she walks by herself, eats by herself, and pretty much dusts, mops and sweeps by herself, too. There’s no hand-holding or spoon-feeding going on here. Even handing her a cup isn’t acceptable. It must be first placed on the floor so she can pick it up herself.

It’s beautiful becoming acquainted with each new idiosyncrasy. It’s a rare thing to see someone so unafraid of being himself.

The public library has a program every Wednesday called Bilingual Birdies. It’s essentially one of those musical tots classes except free since it’s run by the library; you know, an adult shows up with a guitar, sings and occasionally says a word in Spanish or Mandarin while a score of toddlers make loud and enthusiastically unintelligible noises and shake their butts.

Zoe loves music and she loves Bilingual Birdies and she really loves shaking her butt. Three guesses as to how we spend our Wednesday afternoons.

Last Wednesday we were at the library as usual when, for the first time in her relatively short and inexperienced life, Zoe met an older girl that was pointedly unkind to her. Zoe had been fortunate enough to avoid any similar experience until that point. Some kids drop sand on her head at the playground, or give her nasty looks, but for the most part they tend to move on after a couple of seconds. Really it was the first time in Zoe’s life that anyone had intentionally been mean to her. Interesting thing to witness.

This girl repeatedly yelled in Zoe’s face and hit her (softly) on the head with a bag she was holding. Despite her obvious distaste for how she was being treated, Zoe did not cry. With the benefit of being loved and listened to by so many people in her life, she was emotionally prepared so that this one incident did not push her over the edge in any way. If you’ve ever spent any substantial period of time with toddlers, you know how remarkable and unusual that is.

Zoe simply backed up to me and asked to be held. I happily obliged.

Also for the first time in her life, I witnessed Zoe become wary. Even though I was holding her, Zoe’s eyes followed the other girl around the room like a hawk. Zoe completely stopped dancing, stopped listening to the music, and entirely lost her ability to enjoy herself. Even after the girl left the library Zoe refused to budge for a good ten minutes to ensure that she was really gone. Zoe was just a quiet lump in my lamp.

That was Zoe’s reaction the first time she’d ever been the target of anyone’s focused anger and it was with a six year old who was a complete stranger, who played a part in Zoe’s life for only fourteen minutes.

Now think about how a person might react after 50 years at the brunt of someone else’s unhappiness. If this concept doesn’t frighten you yet, think about how one might react after 50 years of anger from both parents, spouses, co-workers, bosses, friends, and strangers. Is it still surprising that strangers on the streets of New York yell at each other over where to walk on the sidewalk?

You don’t even have to guess how people turn out; every time this little girl hit Zoe, her grandfather reacted by yelling at her sharply, yanking her back by the coat, hitting her, and then apologizing profusely to me. Between the two of them there was so much misery and confusion that I don’t know who to feel more sorry for. It’s cyclical.

We don’t outgrow this sensitivity to harshness. It compounds.

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