We spent some time in a small cottage in Vermont this summer. Our children shed their shirts and shoes moments after we arrived and it was a delight to watch my two Brooklyn-born boys dart about freely in all of that nature. They scampered happily through fields, amassed collections of sticks and pebbles, scaled boulders, and explored old barns.
One evening Zeke discovered a copy of The Lorax by Dr. Suess on a shelf. It begins with a little boy exploring a barren wasteland and wondering how it came to be that way. He comes across the mysterious Once-ler, the only living being there, who tells him the story of discovering this idyllic land, once filled with adorable animals and a forest of beautiful “Truffula trees”. The Truffula trees are topped with fluffy, candy-colored foliage that the Once-ler used to knit cozy garments called Thneeds. This quickly becomes a profitable business. As the business grows, the Once-ler builds factories and chops down many, many trees, to keep up with the public’s demand for Thneeds.
As the landscape changes a small mustachioed figure called The Lorax appears, saying, “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.” He urges the Once-ler to care for the land so that the animals and plants can survive there. The Once-ler, who has become wildly successful, ignores the Lorax’s warnings and eventually the air and water become so polluted with waste from the factory that all of the animals are forced to leave. He short-sightedly chops down all of the Truffula trees as well, leaving his business unable to survive, and leaving him alone and broke on the land that he has decimated.
Zeke was engrossed by the story and as I read his brow creased with concern and his blue eyes grew wet and heavy. In his 4 years, he had never encountered the concepts of corporate greed, environmental devastation, or short-sighted selfishness that the story explores and again and again he asked me to explain why the Once-ler would act this way. As I read on I began to wonder if I really wanted my kind-hearted little boy to be aware of this negative side of human nature. He seemed so deeply effected by the Once-ler’s actions and by the powerlessness of the Lorax who speaks up, but can’t seem to bring about any real change.
Then we came to the conclusion of the book
The Once-ler summons the little boy closer and tells him that when the land was left uninhabitable, the Lorax picked himself up and floated away, leaving only a stone carved with the world UNLESS. He drops into the boy’s hand a tiny seed, the last of the Truffula seeds, and explains to him that UNLESS someone like him cares about things, nothing will change. He urges the boy to take care of the seed, to give it clean water and air, to protect it, and grow a new Truffula forest, so that maybe the Lorax and his friends can come back. And as I read the closing lines I could see Zeke’s mind working. He had the joyous light of hope in his eyes and my arms broke out in goose-flesh as I looked at his ecstatic expression and realized what a profound impression this book was making on him. He spent a long time flipping through it, gazing intently at the pictures, his eyes still lit with possibility.
On a sunny afternoon a few days later, we visited a nearby pond to go swimming. Aaron took Zeke out into the water, while I took Jack by the hand to explore the weeds by the edge of the pond, in the hopes of scoring a glimpse of a frog, a turtle, or a darting school of minnows.
We came across a group of children hard at work on an ambitious project. They were mostly spindly-legged boys, with sun-bleached shaggy hair, tirelessly carrying out the orders of their leader, a long-legged girl of about 12, her hair in thick brown braids. She directed them with a stern humorlessness and angry confidence that had clearly been learned from the adults in her life. She had broken her crew into two groups, each group working resolutely on the two sides of what I will call, “Project Salamander”.
The weeds by the edge of the pond were filled with little adorable, squishy, brownish-greenish salamanders who were covered in perfectly round yellow spots. Their eyes were cheerful black bulges and their mouths curved upwards into friendly smiles. If you spotted one, like a shadow beneath the water, you had to move swiftly and decisively, or it would just dematerialize and instantly find refuge somewhere in the deeper darker water.
Half of the kids were trapping and collecting the slippery salamanders in a large red sand bucket– they had nearly 20 when we arrived– while the other half were constructing a pond for them. It was about 3 feet across with thick sand walls. They filled it with pond water and artfully scattered silver-dollar sized lily-pads over the surface, presumably to make it more natural and appealing to their amphibious captives.
Jack, who declared his intention to be a zookeeper shortly after his second birthday, was immediately entranced. He watched the children excitedly and, like the boys working on the Project, he quickly grabbed a bucket and fell in line behind their leader. Under her business-like, watchful eye, Jack was allowed to pour a bucketful of water into the newly constructed pond and to hold a salamander and pet it.
“So Cue-oot!” he squealed.
When the small pond was complete the leader allowed Jack to place one hand on the red bucket as her crew transferred the salamanders to their new home. Disapproval registered instantly on her face when she examined the murky boy-made pond and the salamanders lying sluggishly at the bottom.
“NO!” she snapped. “This isn’t working! They blend right into the sand so we can barely see them! And they aren’t really moving!”She dipped an authoritative hand into the pond, “No Wonder! This water is too warm! It’s warming up too quickly! We need cold water! Now!” She snapped her fingers at one of the boys.
When the boy returned with cooler water from the large pond and poured it carefully in, a portion of the sand wall slid down into the water, further obscuring the salamanders.
“They are going to get away!” the leader shrieked furiously. “Collect them! Put them back in the bucket!” She counted them carefully as each salamander was recaptured and put back in the sand bucket.
The pond abandoned for now, she put her entire team on the job of catching more salamanders. They walked slowly and carefully into the water, holding white nets. After each step they waited for the sand to settle to keep their view of the bottom clear. When a salamander was spotted, they swooped their nets down and scooped the little fellow up before he could scoot off to freedom.
When I commented on their impressive salamander catching skills, the leader looked at me humorlessly and said,
“Where my dad lives, we spend a lot of time catching crayfish and we have become quite skilled at it. We have found that once you can easily catch a crayfish, you can catch pretty much anything without too much trouble.”
As she spoke, the boys stood carefully at attention, awaiting instruction. By now, even I was a little bit afraid of upsetting her.
As I watched this bossy, brown-eyed girl, I flashed on the camping trips that my family used to take near the New York/Pennsylvania border when I was a child. I remember supervising my younger brother and sister as we scoured the forest floor, searching for these sweet little newts that were a bright, story-book illustration tangerine. We too would collect them in buckets, which we lined with grass and sticks to make perfect little habitats for them, where we imagined they would live contentedly as our pampered pets. I clearly remember how I would love them fiercely for an afternoon, or until something else caught my fancy.
So, I was quite taken by Project Salamander. I desperately wanted to pick up the salamanders and cuddle and kiss them too, but being the adult, I felt that it was more appropriate to insist upon my children acknowledging how amazing they were.
The boys’ cousin Nathan was with us at the pond and I lured him over to the bucket with an enthusiastic awed voice that never fails to pique childish interest.
Next I moved to Zeke:
“Come here Zeke! This is SO COOL! Look at what these kids have been doing! They caught all of these salamanders and they are so cute!You won’t even believe it!”
Zeke walked over and looked down into the bucket. Immediately his eyes went dead and in an strange thoughtless sort of move, like that of a toddler with a random destructive impulse, Zeke began to tip over the bucket. A chorus of “NOOOOO” rang out all around us and someone picked up Zeke who was kicking and yelling in a desperate fury,
“No! NO! They don’t have enough room in there!
They need the whole land!”
And my confusion at Zeke’s odd effort to ruin the children’s project disappeared as I saw his deep compassion and his furious passion. In that moment, Zeke was the Lorax and he saw beyond the charming amusement of a group of children, to the suffering of the confined salamanders, who deserved absolute freedom in the vast, cool, deep water that was their home.
As we prepared to leave our Vermont cottage, an impressively violent thunderstorm materialized. Thunder shook our little cottage. Lightening flashed across the sky and rain pounded the fields. Zeke and I were inside, finishing up the packing, while Aaron and Jack took out the garbage and got our truck.
“Oh no!” I said. “It’s raining. Do you think Daddy and Jack are getting all wet?”
My little Lorax smiled at me, and said:
“It’s okay mom. I love it when it rains. It keeps the earth healthy.”
And I remember smiling back at him, a great looping love in my heart, as I held his warm little hand and we looked out together at the staggering power of the storm.
“Why not?” I asked him wearily.
“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And then I won’t dream of Florin!”
“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.
Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend. Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.
Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life. He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.
I have asked Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes. His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.
“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him. And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”
For the past two and a half years, Zeke has been attending cozy little neighborhood home-based schools, in which a group of like-minded parents hired a teacher to run small classes in one family’s home. The schools were run co-operatively by the parents, in partnership with the teacher, and parents were instrumental in shaping the daily classroom practices as well as the tone of the classroom. The school has always felt relaxed, informal, and friendly and our families and our children have all gotten to know each other in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional school setting. We have had a variety of teachers and educational approaches, and I truly couldn’t have been happier with the way Zeke has adapted and grown as a little person. But this does mean that I have managed to put off letting go of the reins and sending Zeke off into the “real world”.
Quite recently, our homeschool situation dissolved and though I was really disappointed, I was sure that Zeke was completely ready for a more formal school and I knew that it would be great for him to advance intellectually and socially in a traditional structured environment.
Enter the Lefferts Gardens Montessori School.
When plans were uncertain over the summer, I placed Zeke on the waiting list for the school, never heard back and promptly forgot about it. When I found myself needing a new schooling situation for him, I left a message there and the next day received a call from the director saying that Zeke could start immediately. This is MUCH easier than getting your children into school is supposed to be in Brooklyn–schools are an endless topic of charged, stressful conversation among Brooklyn parents–and I felt really fortunate to be avoiding all the applications and the waiting and the nail-biting.
As the day drew nearer, I felt somewhat tense, but completely prepared. I had filled out all of the paperwork, made a comprehensive list of emergency contacts, located and photocopied Zeke’s birth certificate, taken a photo of him as he currently appears sans idiosyncratic accessories, packed him a healthy lunch and an emergency change of clothes. I arranged for my sister-in-law to spend the morning with Jack so that I could be there all morning with Zeke, to emotionally support him through this very emotional transition. I explained to Zeke that he would stay at his new big boy school until 4:30, and that all day long he was going to be playing with new friends and learning exciting new things. A distinct lump formed in my throat, but Zeke appeared unfazed.
On the appointed day, Aaron and I brought Zeke to class a few minutes early and he immediately made himself at home, examining all of the manipulatives, sorting through beads, and exploring the classroom library. One of the teachers sat him down at a table and quickly absorbed him in sorting numbered tiles on a numbered grid. Aaron and I felt like we were hovering as the other children started to arrive, so we sat quietly at a table behind Zeke. As 8:30 rolled around, Aaron needed to get back to work and he said a quick goodbye to Zeke.
I stood behind him mired in indecision. Would it be better for both of us to just go and to make a clean break? I decided that I would stay behind and watch the beginning of class. Zeke could get a little nervous when he was left alone for the first time in a new place, right? I looked at his little shoulders in his red and brown thermal and his mop of golden hair, seated at the little pre-school table and he looked so small. I couldn’t leave my special little guy.
I came up behind him and comfortingly gripped his shoulders and said quietly in his ear, “Zekey. Daddy has to go back to work right now, but I can stay here with you for a little while.” (Don’t Worry! Mommy is here!)
Zeke didn’t even turn around. Just continued at his number-sorting task and said indifferently,
“Oh,” I said backing away. “I guess maybe I don’t need to.”
I left the classroom without ever seeing his face. The image of his floppy wheat-colored hair, his small head bent over his work throbbed in my head. “This is how it starts I guess”, I thought and I walked slowly home.