Halloween 2017 served up an unusual set of memories. They included the story of sweet, little pigtailed pre-K girls emerging to their waiting parents wearing greater than usual collections of Band-Aids. Next, it called back the compassionate insight of a college applicant. And, finally, a chilling look at a hate-note.
The three moments stored in memory took on a strange connection, reappearing as somehow related. Three seemingly unrelated moments appeared to be asking to be considered together; calling for me to see their common thread. But what was the connection?
So, I stopped to recall and compare the details. In the end, it came down to a single umbrella stretching from the inability to articulate and fueling feelings that ranged from embarrassment to frustration to aggression to helplessness to rage.
The earliest of the re-emerging memories has stayed with me for years, from when a young mother who was my client told me this story. She noted when picking up her little boy from his play school that a number of pretty little classmates showed a puzzling uniformity. They all were very obviously wearing freshly applied Band-Aids. But no sign of one on her cherished little boy. The “Why” came out when my client greeted his teacher. Their impromptu conference that day was a matter of the teacher reassuring the mother that her little boy might well be using a reflex reaction of biting when faced with the perplexing situation of “literally” being at a loss for words. She quickly explained that the Band-Aids were used more for caution than to address injury. Think of them, the Teacher explained, as a sort of reminder to both parties that there were better ways to address the issues. The kindly teacher drew on her long experience of noting that with every new word learned, the child had less reason to bite or to hit or to cry as a substitute for having no words to express frustration. Several new words later the seemingly angelic little boy’s persona had re-emerged, substituting a newly minted treasury of words as a best-case alternative to his inarticulate aggression.
The second part of my Halloween riddle thread was the story of a recent experience that paired a sensitive camp counsellor and his young charge. The wise-beyond-his-years counsellor started by being puzzled as to why his young camper asked his help in spelling the word he wanted to put on a box he was making in a craft project to make a gift for his Mother at the end of the season. How was it, the young college applicant wondered, that the boy would not know how to spell the simple four-letter word, “Love.” The next step was to put aside any lingering fear that the boy had not experienced love from his family. That was accomplished during the next “mail call.” Most of the campers were enthusiastic in calling out, “Anything for me?”
When the counsellor saw that the letter addressed to the camper who asked how to spell “Love” remained unopened, the counsellor was inspired to ask if the younger boy would like him to read him the letter from his aunt. It turned out that the letter was a full-fledged shout out to the recipient, naming him an amazing, much loved “dude” by his aunt and all his relatives. The “light bulb” moment led the counsellor to realize that his young charge was very likely one of the shockingly large number functionally illiterate fellow citizens. A 2014 story in HuffPost, quoting the U.S Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, indicated that the record had not changed in 10 years since the number was reported to be 32 million adults or 21 percent of that population. Many of them have passed through the educational system with their problem unidentified, much less corrected. Happily, the counsellor understood that there are workable ways, once the problem is acknowledged, to begin to solve it.
The first two accounts open the door to happy endings. I’m less optimistic about the third. Recently, editors had to white out many words included in a blood-chilling hate-note when showing it nailed to a family’s door somewhere in this tri-state area. The obscenity-laced posting threatened action by the KKK. Whether and what parts of the note were in any way fact-based, was not what made me feel so sad and give me a clue as to the pent-up rage it suggested.
The visible parts of the note betrayed a dramatic unawareness of spelling or grammar or any of the structures that open the way to clear statements of otherwise pent-up emotions. It demonstrated the triumph of inarticulateness over compelling communication. Like a lethal back up of toxins, the poisonous feelings had exploded. One can only hope that authorities will recognize that there are remedial steps that can be tapped to bring the writers of the note to the point from which the “victim” was already able to see a better way of beginning the hard work of identifying and addressing the “real” grievance.
Hearing echoes of friends who sometimes ask, “Is Pollyanna your Patron Saint?”, I am challenged to call in additional resources to replace reflex optimism with the far more muscular resource called hope. As fingers pointed in innuendo and accusation intertwine to look more like swastikas, it is time to dare to get back to a search for the “better angels” that hover over all parties and all people committed to honoring a hard-won Constitution. It has been a road map to call a people to the high road of personal responsibility versus finger pointing. It is time to be humble enough to own our own histories and do the hard work of trying to understand each other’s.
Think of a young man who was open to hearing an indecipherable set of letters read to him and then be courageous enough to hear that they had a meaning he could relate to. Think of persons frightened enough of anything called “other” to nail a hate note to a home, presumably without ever having bothered to meet its inhabitants. Think of a little boy who banished the scary bogey man who might have been hiding under his bed by recognizing that it had a name and that he could render it “not scary” by calling it by name. They may point the way to a homeland called hope.