ZenaIn front of me stood a breathless, upset, ten year-old, Daffnee.  Teary eyed, she bobbed up and down, over-sized beret flopping with each spoken fragment. Words fell out in fives and tens. As she’d come near to completing a thought, she’d get stuck and head back for one more go.

I waited as her lips trembled and she collected herself.

Not that the girl held back much on any given day. She tended to over-share and, in truth, kept few personal details to herself. Today’s chant, however, had a different urgency.

If I could only get her to make sense.

“I can see you’re upset, sweetheart. Sit down and take a breath.” She plunked down next to me on a concrete stoop along the playground’s east side. Recess would start soon. I hoped to squeeze her story out beforehand so that I would know what we might need to sort out. I did not expect it to be anything big, but something was clearly amiss.

Half way through another attempt to speak, her voice hitched, and she surrendered, letting her head land with a clunk on my shoulder. At that moment, I intuited something bigger than sadness. More of a red-eared burn that I associate with shame. “Take your time, dear. Talk to me when you’re ready.”

Daffnee could not get the story out but another voice did pipe in. “I can tell y’all what happened.”

Daffnee’s cousin, Keena, had been observing as Daffnee struggled. Cousin watched but could no longer wait. In a few blunt sentences, she laid out the pertinent facts:  Daffnee’s big-armed teacher, Ms. Milversted, had made her stand up in front of thirty classmates while teacher then informed child that she’d “never get anyone to respect your mind if you come to school dressed like an Oompa Loompa.”

With Daffnee now sobbing, Keena spoke for her cousin once more: “I don’t know what’s up, principal. I don’t even know what a Oompa Loompa is. But that’s just wrong. My cousin never hurt nobody! And look at her now. Teacher or not, how that old woman go on and get so mean that way?”

Excellent question. One I would need to investigate. But first, Daffnee would need to get patched up. Then I’d figure out how to mop up the rest.

I saw a tough young advocate in Keena, ready to see truth and call it out. She left me to consider a a swirling set of questions. For example: How can grown folks learn – or maybe remember – when to salt and when to salve? And will we ever learn how to treat one another with kindness? Could we find a way to pour our mis-speaks, mis-steps and mistakes into one shared cup – and could we know to go to this cup before made our next moves ? Or will we go on repeating ourselves, slipping, regretting, wishing, after the fact, that we’d done things another way?

As the flower in a young girl’s soul blooms, fragile and transcendent beauty reveals itself. It may show up in something she chooses to wear, in a poem she reads out loud, or even in a lingering look that she gives at the end of a conversation. Poke at it with salt-tipped remarks and you can kill a bloom outright. I heard Keena’s words becoming my own: “That’s just plain wrong.”

To learn, grow, and carry the heart of that learning forward. That’s the challenge that appears to demand my attention here, and in the weeks ahead.


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