Friday, February 29, 2008

Taking It to the Limit

Working with children is like stepping into an emotional time machine. When I behold a child experiencing something that they will undoubtedly remember for their entire lifetime, I’m virtually transported to a time from my youth when I felt the same way. It’s like when the smell of a Christmas tree takes you back to every other memorable Christmas before. Last night was one such instance, and while I was reminded of similar experiences from my own childhood, I know that last night will also join them in the category of Critical Events I Will Remember Forever.

It started exactly one week ago, as my coworkers and I planned our annual formal recognition awards ceremony, at which core members of our after school programs receive accolades for their participation and achievements. Each branch of our program has a top tier award, with three nominees vying for the spot, though we insist that nomination is award enough. Anyway, this year my program’s nominees were by far three of my favorite kids -- yes, we have favorites. Anybody that works with kids and tells you he doesn’t have a favorite is liar. For one of the kids, this was his second year in the running and as it turned out his second year just falling short. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed more excited about the dinner I’ve traditionally offered afterward than some plaque with his name on it!

So, on Monday, he started bugging me about dinner. I told him we’d go sometime soon, but he pressed for some night this week. I dismissed his insistence until Wednesday, when he asked to speak to me privately.

“We have to go this week because we’re moving on Friday,” he explained. “My mom is keeping it a secret. You’re the only one that knows.”

I couldn’t believe it. This kid has attended my program for as long as I can remember, and he has the most adult sense of humor I’ve ever experienced for someone his age. I mean, inappropriate humor that, as a mentor, I simply couldn’t dissuade in the midst of my own hypocritical laughter. He’d become a friend and reminded me of the type of friends I had at his age. Therefore, I had to respect his family’s plans on a much more than professional level. Pardon the drama, not to mention the cliché, but this one was personal.

Of course, the other nominee that joined us for dinner, the winner of the award, is this kid’s best friend and was soon in on the unfortunate news. As much as we had fun at Red Robin and Baskin Robbins, an air of sadness blanketed the evening, since we all knew that these fleeting moments would be the last spent together. I won’t bore you with how the kids talked our waiter into an extra order of free fries, or how they scored the hostess’s phone number. I won’t divulge how they nearly got me beat up over ice cream as they insulted other customers in helium-induced chipmunk voices. You really can’t put those things into words.

It was when I dropped the kids off at home that I traveled back in time, to those last minutes shared with friends that moved away when I was young. I dropped off the best friend first, and his mother joining us outside was a welcome relief. I was grateful that another adult was present as the boys put off their good-byes, inadvertently keeping me grounded in the here and now. I almost lost it when one of the kids said that we were breaking up the three musketeers -- that I was their proverbial Dartanian. The best friend ran upstairs and brought his buddy some keepsakes, and that the kid knew what the gifts were before the exchange took place was all the more evidence of their camaraderie.

“Animorphs,” he said solemnly, accepting the books knowingly. I never thought I’d hear that word uttered with so much raw emotion.

Before I knew it, it was over. The kids, becoming young men, said good-bye, and I took the child to a local pizza place to meet his family. The drive was quieter than I expected, but I knew his thoughts well. He was at the cusp of a new era in life, that challenging time when a family uproots from one state and starts anew in another. I fought the tears when his mother grabbed me, hugged me, and thanked me for changing her son’s life. It was an awkward good-bye, reminiscent of the suddenness of their departure, but I knew the embrace well enough from when my grandparents moved to Arizona and I grabbed my grandfather’s leg when their flight was called. Of course, a few months later, we followed -- on November 1, to be specific. I vaguely remember the airplane ride over Connecticut, a last, visual grip of the only place I knew then. My young friend experienced such a flight just this morning. As much as he’s left me behind, I hope he’s taken me with him, if only in that moment of critical transition. Although we didn’t experience it together, it’s a memory we’ll always share.

Another fond farewell from my youth was the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes, I know, such a geeky recollection cheapens the story, but I’m sticking with the sci-fi analogy. More importantly, people that know the child I’m talking about can appreciate Captain Picard’s last line -- an homage to trekking the stars, sure, but also a perfect way to summarize how it feels to work with children, the very vastness of emotional investment one experiences when he does it well enough. What better way to describe the potential for joy and heartbreak that comes with having children in your life than this -- ?

“The sky’s the limit.”

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