“You good, pup?”
We were shouting over the roar of the cascading water. Pema secure, I lifted Francis up to the next ledge, then found a handhold for myself, a foothold, and yanked myself up. Smeared with a thin skin of water, the rock was grimy in my hands, and the sprigs of grass that poked here and there were covered in dew. Pema smiled at us expectantly - she had a few moments to take it all in first. Francis and I craned our necks. Two waterfalls, each about twenty feet high, thundered above, flecking us with drops of water. The sound, a riotous mixture of bright, surface tones combined with the deep resonance of stone drums, utterly consumed us. Francis, no taller than my waist, turned to look at me, the fullness of awe in his expression. Behind him, a glob of water landed directly on a penstemon, a thin, spindly plant with red, tubular flowers that erupt in a star-shaped flare. Casually, it bobbed back and forth over the earth.
The waterfall. We were back.
The week before I had taken Pema, Francis and Ada to the same waterfall. We had had an elegant time of it, but I elected to stay near the surface. The water had been flowing gently that day and the small eight-foot waterfall at the lip of the canyon was all we needed for a few hours of restful play. Just beyond that waterfall, however, the water plunges another two hundred feet down the wall of the canyon, stumbling over boulders and tree roots, carving pools into the earth and leaving piles of sand, occasionally falling off steep ledges. It’s not one waterfall, it’s dozens, and eventually the water plunges into the icy river on the canyon floor.
The acequia that feeds the waterfall is a man-made ditch, a diversion from the Rio Hondo, a mountain stream that flows rapidly out of the Sangre de Cristos in the east and drains through Arroyo Hondo, the small valley that forms the community in which we live. Taken several miles upstream, the water flows along the southern edge of Arroyo Hondo, irrigating the pastures and gardens of a hundred or so homes, and finally drains, via these spectacular waterfalls, back into the Rio Hondo, which itself joins the Rio Grande about a quarter mile further.
Here, at the termination point, the acequia passes the last house in Hondo, a small green cabin, and, with no more work to do, and no more mouths to feed, it tumbles down the canyon. Depending on how much water folks are drawing at any given time, this termination point, the waterfall, can be a trickle, as it was the week before. It can be bone dry, as it often is in late summer. Or, on this particular day, it can pour with such force that the sound alone instills fear. The waterfall trickling into the pool the children had played in last week would, on this day, have knocked a full grown man over instantly.
“Up there, pup,” I said, indicating a large, wet rock in the middle of the stream, between the falls. I was shouting, choosing my words carefully. The roar of the twin falls was almost deafening, and while Pema and Francis, five and three respectively, tend to accompany themselves with constant chatter, the immensity of the falls instilled in us a reverent silence. Pema had been here before, as had I. Still, we were both awestruck. Francis beamed as if he had never seen anything like it on earth.
Holding out my hand to Pema, who was able to do most of the climbing herself, I helped her over the small rivulet at our feet, making sure that she was safe on the rock island, and then turned to Francis behind me. He smiled and raised his arms. Putting my hands under his armpits, I lifted him over the current and placed him on the rock next to Pema. We were about halfway down the wall of the canyon at this point, a hundred feet or so from the top.
With one big stride I was on the rock island too. I squatted down to my ankles and the three of us, huddling briefly, took it all in. Mere feet from the twin falls, I could have held my hand out to receive a somewhat heavy-handed high-five from the falling water, though it would have taken considerable strength to keep it there. The stray drops from above and the splashes from below were enough to make it feel as if we were in a rainstorm. It was a hot day, and within moments our hair, shirts and pants were damp.
“I want to get down,” Francis said, a quaver of fear in his voice.
“Okay,” I answered. Had I been alone, I would have stayed there for quite a while, but I was sensitive to the kids’ needs. A bit of fear was healthy. I hopped back to the shore and turned around, reaching out to catch him under the armpits once again. In my arms, Francis felt secure. I felt secure. Watching the white, foamy water rush underneath, I set him down safely at my side, then turned to Pema. “Me too!” she shouted. I held out a hand for her, allowing her to make the leap herself.
A child’s trust is something you have to earn. As a young father, I face this fact repeatedly, but it was a particular lesson of the last year with Silke and the Earth Children. Till then, all the children I had spent time with, like Francis, were Pema’s friends. They were my friends. Slowly, almost unconsciously, as the kids and I aged we formed a bedrock of trust that allowed us to do some amazing things. Simple things too, but if our bodies and imaginations were up for it we could tackle just about anything. I think of those children, the children that grew up with me, as if they are my own. Not only do they trust me, but I know their limits and strengths. I know when their complaints are feigned and when they’re real. I know the fidgets of their personalities, when they’re hungry and when they’re bored. So last fall, when the school year began, I entered a very different relationship.
The Earth Children, whom I saw twice a week for about five hours throughout the school year, were, to begin with, mostly older than Pema. Till then, largely due to circumstance, most of the children in my orbit were Pema’s age or younger. I am not a childcare professional and, like many Americans, I spent little time with children before having one. Our society tends to be divided into age and peer groups, and, without even really noticing it, that tendency led much of the course of my life. Having a child was a great awakening, and also very disruptive. Like many new parents, I stumbled uncertainly for a bit with this new and incomprehensibly huge responsibility, but I also fell in love. As Pema aged, I became attuned to the needs of a child at two, three, four… But beyond that lay an ocean of ignorance.
With the Earth Children, I was suddenly confronted with a species of child I knew nothing about. The five and six year-olds raced ahead of Pema and me with social skills and physical bodies that we hadn’t yet grappled with. Pema and her friends were slow and careful, full of trust, while these kids were often dynamic and socially manipulative. I think it’s fair to say I was made a fool on many occasions.
But the age difference was nothing compared to the fact that I was a stranger. Almost any child will engage and have fun with a playful adult, but when the going gets tough, as it surely did, it was obvious that I lacked the children’s trust. They didn’t want my help. They weren’t interested in my advice. They might let me peel their orange at snack time, but they didn’t want to hold my hand on a long walk. This was uncomfortable for me at times, but I didn’t begrudge the fact. I had no social standing in their world. I had given them, as yet, no reason to trust me.
Over the course of the year, I was able to connect with the kids in Silke’s kindergarten, some in a deep and meaningful way, but it was a mixed bag. As a male caregiver in a role mostly dominated by women, I held a tenuous position. I was both welcomed in and kept at arm’s length. Some of the kids adored me. Some were wary, even to the very end. This is normal, I suppose. I became a competent assistant, but at home, with my inner circle of kids, I felt relaxed in a way I almost never felt at school.
“Okay, hold on,” I said, Pema and Francis now safely on the shore. Their shirts were speckled with dark flecks of water which landed, then dried and disappeared before my eyes. I could feel the cool drips on my own back. Looking them both in the eye, I attempted to discern their level of comfort. I was willing to head to lower ground, about thirty feet below, where I had spied a calm pool of water with a sand bank carved into a wide arc on the ledge. But, if they had the patience, I wanted to visit one more place first. Pema glanced around casually, but Francis, exhilarated by the thundering fall and the nervous tension of present danger, kept his eyes directly on me. He was attentive to the tension in my muscles, the look on my face. But here on the shore, he seemed content enough, at least for the moment.
“I’m going to climb over there for a minute!” I shouted, partly to gauge their reaction. I held my hand up to indicate a small ledge in the cliff behind one of the falls. From the rock island I could make a short leap to that ledge and, it appeared, shimmy my way to a position behind one of the falls. It was much too narrow and wet to bring the kids there, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. Plus, children, like adults, live vicariously. Simply seeing me do this, I knew, would fill them with wonder. Pema and Francis nodded approvingly.
With the school year ended, I’ve spent the last two weeks with my core group of kids. It’s given me a chance to reflect, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the Earth Children, it’s become clear to me that I want something more. What Silke does with the kids is, by all traditional standards, radical, daring and exquisite. An educator with more than thirty years of experience, her attentiveness with the children is stunning to behold. Watching her is like watching the hands of a master craftsman. She is the picture of grace.
I’m decidedly less graceful, but there are moments, like that afternoon amongst the falls, that fill me with a sense of possibility. That is how I want to educate my children - climbing down two-hundred foot cliffs, under thundering waterfalls and along sandy shores. It is a lesson not just in place, gravity and wonder, but in cooperation and listening. It requires us to be in tune with each other, and my education is at least as rich as theirs. As a team, we support each other, moving our limbs and bodies across the landscape almost as if one organism, determining strategies and sheltering our hearts in one another as needed.
I would never have attempted such a trip with the Earth Children. The size of the group, even at just ten kids, was too large. I would not have trusted their attentiveness and surefootedness, and they, in all likelihood, would not have trusted me. To undertake such a trip requires a deep and lasting intimacy. That is, to undertake the kind of education I seek requires a deep and lasting intimacy, and this goes for the classroom as much as the cliff edge. The entire concept of children being grouped together into twenty or thirty peers with one adult at the head is, on one hand, just silly to me. On the other hand, it is profoundly sad. We adults have largely abandoned our children to others who, attentive as they surely are, can never replace the care of a loving adult. I want children who grow in body, mind and spirit, not just in intelligence. And, god-willing, I want to mature into a wisdom that complements that growth. Whether that can be done with more than three or four kids at a time is an open question for me, though I currently doubt it. But this I’m sure of - it cannot possibly be done without intimacy, love and trust.
Pushing off my left toe, my center of gravity dangled for one brief moment between the rock island and the ledge, over the gushing waters below, and finally extending down through my right foot and onto the massive rock cliff behind the falls. I stood on a crack barely two-feet wide, with little space in which to turn. Slowly, carefully, I tiptoed my way around to face Pema and Francis, who, catching my glare, smiled from the safety of the shore.
“Dad!” Pema shouted, “over there!” Her arm waved back and forth, pointing to the small cavity behind the falls. Francis’s eyes grew wide as he watched in anticipation, and his lips curled ever higher. Turning to Pema, he wiggled in uncontained excitement, reaching out to touch her body. Pema clenched her fists and shook them in quick, eager movements, a posture that reminds me so dearly of my brother. As Francis reached in, she put her arm over his shoulder and held him tight. I showed my teeth. The roar of the waterfall coursed through my body, as much a feeling as a sound, surrounding all of us with a sense of its power. I stepped sideways, slowly, cautiously, my hands feeling for the wall behind me, toward the cavity behind the falls. One foot, slide. One foot, slide.
The week before, Francis and I had watched a tiny boat crafted of Styrofoam and leaves make its way, calmly and casually, through a pool of water under a tree root. Afterward, we looked at each other, having both just witnessed a small miracle of space and time.