First, you have to know this about my family. Three girls, with me in the middle, and the other two seven years in each direction. My Mom left (long story, not telling it now) when I was an infant, and came back when my baby sister was born.
We didn't really know each other, my mother and I. I was being raised by my Dad, and she came back, with rules and ways of doing things that she wanted "just so." She had a reason for everything she did, I'm sure, but most of them she didn't share with me, a kid, and many of them were not, exactly, the way I believed other families did things. Whether I was right or not I had no way of knowing at the time, but looking back now... I still don't know. It's impossible to know what goes on inside someone else's home, so much of what we are allowed to see is a mask, a pretense, an attempt to conform.
We moved here when I was seven. Here, being upstate NY, and where we moved from, being southern Georgia. The last thing I remember hearing as we left was that I could never go back, because I'd be a "damned yankee." Oh, yes. Alive and well, the war between the states is, in the places where they "lost," but, more importantly, where things were never really resolved.
I had moved from a small town, with a small neighborhood public school, and living with my older sister and Dad, to here, much colder, strange accents, a very strict neighborhood public school, and my mother, and her new baby, living with us again. The next year, the school I attended went through a complete metamorphosis, and became not the horrifically strict place it had been, but a wonderful experiment in education based on Summerhill. What people nowadays might call a "Sudbury School" except we did it before Sudbury. Not only had I moved a little over a thousand miles, and forward about a century in some ways, but I also moved from a single parent household to two parents, a new baby, and a completely different educational experience.
It was no wonder that all I heard from most people I spoke to was some comment about my accent. But I digress.
This all left me in a position of great change, both internally and externally. Being an analytical sort of kid, I spent a lot of time trying to "figure out" pretty much everything.
The school I went to was a fabulous place. Really. I'll write more about it later. I love writing about it because people don't believe me, don't believe such a place could have existed. It is the only example I know of where something that was "too good to be true" was true, anyway. The teachers- facilitators, really- went by their first names, so they weren't set up as "authority figures," and took pay cuts in order to allow the hiring of more people, so the teacher/student ratio was much better than at other schools. They believed in what we were doing, and it showed.
We were not forced to do anything. At all. Complete free reign.
One of the things this accomplished was creating an environment where people questioned the "status quo." A lot. We questioned authority, and each other, and pretty much everything, and were encouraged to do so. This is important. Most kids are not encouraged to question anything of substance, really.
So naturally, at home, I continued this questioning of authority, and my parents, having chosen this educational experience for me out of concerns of their own about authority and the dominant cultural paradigms, continued that encouragement.
I only went to that school because it was a block from my house, not out of any understanding whatsoever about it being any different from any other school.
And my parents were for the most part, fairly typical parents of that day and age.
Which translates more often to "get me a switch" than to "let's think about that and come to a decision together, honey."
So really, it meant that most of the time, at school, I had freedom, and at home, I did what I was told.
One of the things I was told to do was to watch my little sister. Not a whole lot, me not being the eldest, but sometimes. This was not something I particularly cared to do. I wasn't one of those girls who are into babies, not by a long shot. Tolerate, sure. Cuddle and babble at and fawn over- no. Not my thing.
So one day, I was watching the baby. She had a crib set up in the kitchen, where she took her naps, but this wasn't during a nap. Which meant I had more responsibility- I had to follow her around and keep her out of trouble. Sometimes a challenge, but really, she wasn't a particularly difficult baby.
This day, she was crawling around on the floor in the kitchen. Unlike my kitchen now, where crawling around on the floor would be risking your health and sanity, my mother kept the kitchen floor fairly clean.
But not entirely clean.
When I wasn't looking, the baby managed to find an old gum wrapper on the floor. She was poking at it with her tiny fingers, and apparently found it the most fascinating thing. It crinkled, I think. And it probably smelled like the spearmint gum it came from. Wrigley's. I'm sure it was from my older sister, who chewed a lot of gum. I don't know if she liked it, or if she only wanted the wrappers to make a gum wrapper chain with (does anyone ever do that anymore?). Either way lots of gum, and here, on the floor, within reach of the baby, a dirty gum wrapper.
Clearly, this was not acceptable.
As the person in charge, I immediately stepped in and took that nasty gum wrapper away from the baby, effectively saving her from all sorts of diseases, or maybe from choking. I was a hero, I was pretty sure.
The baby did not agree.
She screamed at the top of her lungs.
Oh, lordy. A screaming, wailing baby, rapidly turning red in the face, and I had no idea what to do to get her to stop. Telling her to stop screaming was not effective in the least. Wishing she would stop did not help.
And then it hit me.
Like a glass of ice cold water thrown in my face by an older sibling...
not really. More like a ray of sunshine suddenly breaking through the clouds, complete with birds singing and little bunny rabbits hopping by.
Kind of funny, now, looking back, that this may have been one of the most important moments in my entire life.
Me, in the kitchen doorway, holding an old gum wrapper.
The baby, on the floor across the room, screaming.
What I suddenly realized was this: I could not come up with a single solitary reason why there was a problem with the baby exploring a gum wrapper, with someone there keeping an eye on her, making sure she didn't choke on it. She was not, actually, going to catch some horrible disease. And she apparently found this exploration to be important, and worthwhile, even if all I saw was a gum wrapper on the floor. Who was I to deny her this opportunity? Why did I get to make that decision for her, to take away something she found valuable, just because I didn't?
The thing is, I loved my baby sister, and wanted her to be happy. I didn't want to be the person standing in the way of her doing what she wanted or needed to do, or the one who took away whatever made her happy. I didn't want to let someone else's idea of what was or was not appropriate or interesting or valuable- without any real reason other than "everyone knows" or "it's always been that way" or "it's dirty"- make me make decisions without thinking.
I walked across the room and gave the gum wrapper back.
She smiled up at me.
I smiled back, with a heart full of love, and a mind full of understanding and hope.
She looked it briefly, then crawled off to do something else.
I was eight years old.
It changed everything about who I was, and who I was to become.
I am forever grateful.