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Wild and Free

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“In short, all good things are wild and free.” ~Henry David Thoreau, “Walking

“That great cathedral space which was childhood.” ~Virginia Woolf, “Moments of Being” (75)

I have been observing my daughter’s fifth grade class during afternoon recess for a full trimester. It turns out to be a soul-nourishing activity, even while it is endlessly disorienting. First, there is the energy, and this at the end of day. Around the mini turf where most of them play and the surrounding lawns, playmates pop up and down spontaneously from one second to the next like a movable, whimsical whack-a-mole game, defying grownup attempts to keep tabs on their movements, or even their safety, from one moment to the next. Just when you think you’ve seen a group of three, four, or five friends settle down to tie shoes and talk, one or two, or maybe all, leap up: on to the next flight of fancy, and run or skip or cartwheel, or scream or some helter-skelter combination of these. They are a tumult of flutters, dispersing and reclustering with a new group of friends or breaking away to wander the outskirts talking or singing to themselves, gesturing obscurely from time to time at some unseen stimulus.

Mostly, these late autumn days, they remind me of the dry November leaves swirling around the lively scene: how they cyclone together, tumbling without purpose, with no visible provocation, then suddenly dispersing, scattering across lawns. Arms flail, faces bunch up in delight as a chase is on or a soccer ball is stolen out from under a friend’s determined footwork.

What I see around me is unmitigated childhood joy. One student, in particular, jostles with the boys at soccer with wild abandon. She is a force to be reckoned with, more than once beginning her recess with a casual comment to me like, “Well, let’s see if I can hang onto my two front teeth today!” And she’s off, challenging, pushing herself, face reddening from exertion, eyes glistening, and pure delight exuding from the round nexus of energy that is her smiling face. And sometimes she does get hurt, which she brushes off as nothing at all, eager to get back into her unself-conscious play. Not only is this child free from self-consciousness, she’s not even particularly concerned with her own self-preservation. She seems to pride herself in the way she dabbles with danger each afternoon on the turf.

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I love the easy way these children attach and detach, attach and detach. How they group, splinter, regroup. They hold these connections lightly, like the spiraling leaves, seemingly without much thought, apparently without being troubled by angst. When, in the midst of this happy hullabaloo, I notice a conga line forming among the students, my pleasure swells at the way these friends fall in line with glee and shouts and all-inned-ness. They are living this moment inexorably present, utterly enjoying themselves; no part of them is elsewhere. No part of them worries or schemes or withdraws. Next, a sudden game of Simon Says commences, with instructions apparently so hilarious or absurd as to send several children rolling on the ground in hysterics.

There is something wild here. Something vital and free, and if only I could get at it. If only I could preserve, dole it out. (We adults could use some of this; could we not?) If only I could find a way to bottle this for my own fifth grade daughter, dispensing just-enough doses to her when, in the future, she has left behind some of this vibrant play and lovely carelessness. In these afternoon moments, the flame of each of these lives is so evident, not yet dampened by self-conscious concern, by self-judging of actions or the distancing from others that comes from judgment.

I recognize that they are on the cusp. This is the age when things begin to change. Already, some of the children do hang back more than the rest, afraid to embarrass themselves, not sure who will be most receptive to their utterly authentic, raucous, unfiltered delight. With sadness, I realize that by sixth grade, many more will be censoring themselves, weighing and measuring responses, trying to anticipate classmates’ reactions and behave judiciously so as not to incite teasing or scorn. They will move into a pattern marred by parsing out who they should or should not approach, how they should or should not appear, and what they should or should not say. All these habits of the mind we grow into, and they feel like death: the dwindling of authenticity, of vibrancy, of childhood itself, and of, on some level, what it means to be unreservedly alive.

But for now, I will savor observing these children, who, for the most part, manifest absolute acceptance of self and others. I will reflect on and be fed by my observations of these beautiful beings who inhabit a moment absolutely, without analyzing actions, siphoning words, or managing appearances. In these end of the day moments, they are free beings. Attempts to contain their wildness or to order them fall futile like leaves to the ground. They are bright-eyed will-o-the-wisps, all dimples and mischief, and they minister to me of the essence of life.

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