“Why are you being so mean?”
Esperanza was disgusted with me. Advah, shivering, was crying into her jacket, and Autumn had her hands in the air, as if hoping I would only come to reason. Me too. We stood in the rain by the van, next to Farmer Ron’s shed where earlier we had shelled blue speckled teparies, a small bean native to New Mexico. The rest of the group was in the far north field.
Spring was in full bloom at Ron’s heirloom seed farm in La Villita, but a late winter storm had come in the night before, leaving a chill in the air. Swirling clouds of rain gave way to patches of bright sun, and strong gusts of wind shook tiny flowers from the cottonwoods nearby. Only twenty minutes ago we had been sitting in the sun eating a late lunch, stripped down to our t-shirts. Then, as we walked to the north field to check on our peas, the sky grew dark again and began to shed heavy drops of rain. Autumn, Esperanza and Advah had left their jackets behind, and I had run back with them to the van.
Rifling through the van, we found Autumn’s and Esperanza’s winter jackets in the back seat; Advah, her sweater. “Where’s your jacket, Advah?” I asked, poking through the backpacks and snow pants piled on the floor. “I don’t need it,” she answered, pulling the sleeves of her sweater right side out. “You don’t need it, my butt,” I thought, walking to the trunk. Advah, a thin rail of a girl, has complained of cold all winter. At times, out in the woods, while the other kids romped in the snow and cold temperatures, she laid on the ground under a heap of dry leaves to keep from freezing, her face popping out of the ground as if she were planted there.
I walked around to the front passenger seat and opened the door. Leaning over to rummage through the contents, I could feel thick drops of water falling on my back. I too was underdressed. Earlier that day, in the first bout of rain and wind, Esperanza’s father had handed me a thick down vest. But, like the girls, I had shed it when the sun came out.
I looked across to the driver’s seat, spying a white and pink jacket. Bingo. As I grabbed it, I looked out the back door, still open, and saw the trio walking in the other direction. “Hold on, girls!” I shouted as I ran from behind the van, waving the jacket in the air. “Advah, isn’t this yours?”
Earlier, as we shelled beans under the corrugated metal roof of Farmer Ron’s shed, listening to the staccato of raindrops overhead, Advah and Autumn had quickly withdrawn into their own world. The beans had already been shelled and threshed last fall, but a fair number could still be found in the tangled mass of vines. Each child had been given a plastic Easter egg in which to deposit their beans for safekeeping, but as the other children dutifully hunted through the yellow and green spiral-shaped pods, searching for the little gray beans speckled with blue dots, Autumn and Advah giggled off to the side, repeatedly inserting one bean into one of their eggs, shaking it, and then uncovering it.
This is a common pattern. All the children have their favorites, their besties, but Autumn and Advah are without question the most bonded. They hold hands when we walk, sit next to each other at lunch, and generally do almost everything together, creating a dyad that is, for the other children, hard to break into. Advah, who is a year younger, looks up to Autumn as if she were the queen of her heart and will copy essentially anything Autumn does. Autumn, one of the oldest and strongest of the girls (and all the children), has a healthy and admirable self-confidence. She is often the center of games and social groupings, and she knows it. She can be a bit capricious with the other kids, but she is a constant friend and advocate to Advah, whom she genuinely loves.
Enter Esperanza, stage left. Bright, lithe and capable, Esperanza is the same age as Autumn, and just as socially astute, but as a relative newcomer to Taos she hasn’t yet had the time to develop longstanding relationships. She doesn’t command the social power that an old-timer like Autumn does. Esperanza is quick to join their games, but if Autumn and Advah are being exclusive, Esperanza will reluctantly try the lead with some of the other children in an alternative game. Still, she craves, at least at times, to be part of the alluring team that Autumn and Advah create. Don’t we all?
“No, I don’t need it,” Advah spoke back to me, as I caught up with the girls. Her hands were buried stiffly into the thin pockets of her white sweater, and her shoulders were hunched to her ears; the very expression of cold. “No, Advah, come on. Don’t be crazy. You need to put your jacket on.”
“No, I’m not cold!” she gave back, looking at me with her big, wide eyes. There was a fierceness to her expression, something that was unfamiliar to me, but I shrugged it off.
I’m all for reasoned inquiry and balanced conversation with the kids. I trust them, and in order for them to trust me I believe it’s important that they recognize that I’m willing to listen. Still, I’m used to this game of give and take about jackets and hats. I play it with my own daughter, Pema, all the time. Given the circumstances, the cold wind and increasingly heavy rain, I stated, directly and without any room for negotiation, “Advah, absolutely not. You have to put this jacket on before we walk back out.”
“No, I’m not cold!” she shouted again, now quite upset. The situation, to my displeasure, was escalating. Advah eyed me defiantly, while Esperanza and Autumn stared dumbly, watching us. I held the jacket in my hands, feeling the chill of the fat drops as they splashed about my shoulders. Everyone was wondering what I would do. Me too.
I knew I had only so much leverage with these three. While they’re plenty used to me in the context of the kindergarten, none of these girls are regular playmates of Pema’s. We don’t have the longstanding bond of trust and love that I have with some of the other kids. To them, I’m just Miss Silke’s assistant, Papa Joe, a somewhat laughable companion and storyteller. But everyone knows who wears the pants in this group: the woman with the felt and the German accent.
“Okay, listen,” I said, my mind searching for a tenable solution. “If you don’t want to put it on, okay, but you need to take it with you.” The quickest way to relax the tension with kids is just to let go, and this seemed like a reasonable compromise. I held the jacket out to Advah, who grabbed it out of my hands, thrust it to her face, and began to cry. Damn.
I was losing ground, but the situation was not impossible. Then Autumn, who empathized with her friend’s tears, began arguing on her behalf. “Why does she have to wear a jacket if she’s not cold?” she said to me, waving her hand at Advah to accentuate her point. I could hear exasperation in her voice, but it wasn’t, as yet, directed at me. Autumn is a stoic and reasonable girl, and she’s not easily shaken. Esperanza, on the other hand, quivers like a bowstring. “Yeah?” she said, following Autumn’s lead, a flood of emotion in her voice, “Why does she have to wear a jacket?” The situation provided a rare opportunity for Esperanza, who no doubt empathized with Advah’s plight, to take up with the two girls.
There is nothing more powerful than an outsider to bond a group of people together. The problem was, the outsider was me.
At this point, it was clear that the jacket wasn’t exactly the issue here. I had begun to parse out, so it seemed to me, the various issues at play, but it wasn’t doing me a lot of good. I was still driving us over the cliff. Advah’s defiance seemed exaggerated. I guessed that it might have to do with something else, possibly a lingering exchange with her older sister, or another child at school. Feeling unequal to those challenges, she saw me as a safe bet, an opportunity to stand up for herself and exert her control. I get that. At the same time, I was cold, and, carrying several distinct memories of Advah’s deep chills last winter, I felt determined to keep her warm. Surely, I had her care in mind, but I think I also wanted her to be warm as a sort of proxy for me. Autumn, thank God, was largely a bystander, perhaps the most reasonable of us all, but Esperanza, chancing upon a rare opportunity to bond with Autumn and Advah, accelerated the conflict by, now quite vehemently, siding with the two in one of the most potent ways possible - identifying the enemy. Me.
Advah, who now refused to look at me, wept bitterly into her jacket, while Autumn sidled from foot to foot, waving her arms and rolling her eyes with increasing irritation. I longed for Silke’s expertise, but I also want the freedom to negotiate these trials myself. Esperanza, now emboldened, employed that tried and true pillar of rhetoric, grasping the moral high-ground. “Why are you being so mean?” she asked, by which she declared, with righteous indignation, that I was a bully.
Mean. What a vicious word. It’s not one we experience much in adulthood. Adults use other words and subtleties of expression (don’t be a jerk), but we rarely accuse someone, face to face, of being such. Children, who are constantly testing the waters of language and power, don’t have that hesitation. “Don’t be mean,” a child will say, one hand grasping a shovel another child is using, by which they mean something like, “if you don’t share that with me, I’m going to accuse you of being an asshole. And, if you’re not careful, I may even get an adult to agree with me.” People are so clever.
“Girls,” I said, speaking to Esperanza and Autumn, an obvious strain in my voice, “Can you give us some space? I need you to walk ahead and give Advah and me some room to talk.” I quickly knelt in front of Advah, separating her from the other girls. I was ready to listen. “Hey Advah,” I said, hoping to draw her out with a change of tone in my voice. “Look, if you don’t want to wear the jacket, that’s fine. Maybe I wasn’t listening well enough. I’m just concerned because it’s raining, and you look cold. But look, I don’t care. I care about you, and you seem angry and sad.” I sat quiet for a moment, hoping to hear something from her. But Advah, who had withdrawn into a cave, was having none of it. She did not remove the jacket from her face. Esperanza and Autumn, though silent, kept the tension at a fever pitch.
I decided to back off. Maybe we all needed some space. The girls grouped together and we walked in the rain, silently, joining the rest of the group at the end of the lane. The lilacs were in bloom, and the bushes shook and swirled in the wind like the surface of the sea in a storm. I felt anxious, like I made a big mistake. Damn, we were just getting jackets. Maybe I was wrong to insist? Maybe my tone was too direct? Whatever it was, in the matter of fifteen minutes I totally lost these three kids.
As the adults walked along the path, cheerfully talking about heirloom beans, we spotted a llama in the distant field. I could feel the silent language moving through the rest of the kids like lightning. “Papa Joe was being mean,” I heard Esperanza whispering to Wolfie. Pema, who was getting chilled again, took my hand, as I dragged my feet in the dirt. I looked at Silke, who, hands firmly in her rain jacket, looked a bit cold herself, and said nothing.
We caught up with the llama, whose dark brown wool was getting wet. She came up to us for a moment, chewed some grass, then moved on. It was almost time for us to go. “I screwed up,” I said quietly to Silke, exposing myself with a half-smile, as we slowly made our way back to the van.
On the car ride home, I told Silke what had happened. She and I sat in the front seat. Pema and Wolfie sat behind us, and in the way back, Autumn and Advah talked quietly. Esperanza had gone home with her father. I didn’t want Silke to fix it for me, or explain it away, but it was important for her to know the mood and tone of the children. Plus, I felt like an idiot and it’s helpful when I admit it.
“When I was in Germany,” Silke said, after listening to my story. “My first year of teacher training. I dreaded the moment the teacher would walk out of the room. The children know, and they will test you. You should see it as an initiation.” Yeah, I thought, but it didn’t help much.
“Silke,” Advah said, as the van slowly climbed out of the Rio Grande Gorge and onto the top of the mesa, just south of Taos. The view of the valley is expansive and rich, framed by snow-capped mountains. In the middle, the gorge, zig-zagging like a massive lightning bolt, continues unimpeded for miles.
“Yes, Advah?” Silke answered.
“Remember you said we could have a piece of that gum when we got out of the gorge?” I was delighted to hear Advah talk, even if she wasn’t talking to me. The van belonged to Advah’s mother and father, who had loaned it to us for the trip. Advah, knowing its ins and outs, told us there was a little cup with some pieces of gum leftover from her birthday, and Silke had promised that, if the children were quiet and rested through the gorge, they could each have a piece once we climbed out.
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” answered Silke, wondering if they would remember. “Where is it?”
“It’s in the little, um, underneath the little one.”
“You mean here?” I asked, opening a small door under the radio. “No, no, not there,” answered Advah. Silke was driving, so I began poking around for the gum. “Here?” I said, pointing to the console between the front seats? “No…no…” Advah was searching for how to describe it, but she wasn’t quite getting there. “Over there,” she said. Finally, I pointed to the glove compartment in front of me. “Yeah!” Advah rang out, “That’s it!”
I opened the little door and pulled out a plastic cup. Inside were seven small squares of gum, yellow, red, pink and orange. I shook them noisily. “I want red!” Wolfie shouted. “I want orange!” Pema answered. “Okay, wait, wait,” I answered, not wanting to be the arbiter of colors. Grabbing two yellows, a red and an orange, I reached back with my hand to Advah. “I’m going to give them to Advah,” I said, “since they’re hers. There’s one for each of you, and Advah, you can give out whatever colors you like.” She smiled and looked happily as the four little squares dropped into her hands.
“I got orange!” Pema reported happily. “Hey, guess what?” Wolfie said, “I got red!” The two yellows, silently, went into the hands of the friends in the way back, who, no doubt, shared a knowing glance. “Guess what color I want!” I shouted, perking up for the first time since the incident with the jacket. I turned around and looked at Advah briefly, who looked up at me. “Blue speckled teparies!” I shouted.
I would have stood in the rain for days for that smile.