Me and Miss J

On a typical afternoon with 2-year-old Julia, I learn more than I teach

| January/February 2001 Issue

The baby-sitter said that Julia, who was 2 1/2 years old, had been "a little bit sad for a while" because her mother, who had a new part-time job and had dropped Julia off a few hours earlier, had gone away for "quite a long time." There were tear stains on Julia’s face and her eyes were bleary and red. I am Julia’s grandfather by association (I have no children of my own), and this was the first time I had seen her so unhappy. She looked older than her age and very tired, and I felt helpless for a moment until she came into my arms and reassured me that her sadness would go away as soon as she started feeling happy.

I took her out to the car and put her in the car seat, which had a complicated fastening system that I could never remember how to work. As I fumbled with the straps, Julia said, "We really have to deal with this now," and she pulled the center strap into its proper position.

We got home and ate cheese sandwiches, and Julia went over to the bookcase and pulled out Baby Moses, a Bible Story Chunky Flap Book that no one in her family will admit to having purchased, but that has been in Julia’s book collection since shortly after she was born. We sat down and Julia began to recite the 131 words of its text and to open the little flaps on each page. Under one flap lay the basket in the bulrushes. When we got to it Julia faltered, and I felt a slight panic at what was coming up: the image of baby Moses, alone in the basket, floating away, and a line of text reading, "She set Moses afloat, on the river." Now Julia’s voice broke and she said, rather desperately, "I’m getting sad now!" We stopped reading and I reminded her that we already knew the end of the story, which was happy, even if this part of the story was sad. Julia turned a few pages ahead and then closed the book. "I’m not sad now," she said, and she got down from the sofa and went over to the toy box and began pulling out stuffed animals and laying them on the carpet. Then she cleared a space for one of them and I saw that she had chosen the koala bear with the Velcro paws, within which was enfolded a tiny baby koala.

The play with the koala family was simple and direct: First Julia un-Velcroed the baby koala and took it to one side of the room and took the mother koala to the other side, and then she began moving back and forth between them, crooning to them and comforting them in turn. Accompanied by Julia’s crooning, the ancient story of the child abandoned by her mother unfolded in my living room. Eventually Julia put mother koala and baby koala together for the last time and said, "Here you are." Then she covered them up with a blanket.

Later we went for a walk and she fell asleep in the stroller. When she woke up I asked her what she had been dreaming and she paused for a moment and said, "I had no dreams at all."

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