“No, that was mine!” Guinevere shouted from the top of a large boulder. She had been preparing, like the other kids before her, to slide down the boulder’s smooth, sloping surface, when she saw Pema dash across the bottom and scoop up a feather, brown and white, with an iridescent orange quill. There were several others just like it in her tightly fisted hand. All the kids had them. The unmistakable plumage of a flicker, a woodpecker common in the mountain west, we had found its scattered remains only minutes ago.
“No, it’s not,” Pema answered, “Peter dropped it.”
“No!” screamed Guinevere, “That one was mine! I put it there!”
“Well, I’m not giving it back,” Pema said.
Instinctively, my head swiveled back to the juniper tree where Guinevere and I had first found the bird’s remains. It was only a few yards away, on the other side of the large pool of sand under my feet. We were at the tail end of Bone Canyon, not far from where the little side canyon empties into the Rio Grande Gorge. Hardly fifty feet wide, with side walls no higher than a hay loft, it is the ideal location for an outdoor classroom, filled with nooks and shelves in the outer walls, and pools of sand, like that in which I stood, on the floor. Massive boulders, shaped by intermittently flowing water, linger in the landscape, and pockets of grass, mud and gravel abound.
Upon landing in the sand, Guinevere took a step towards Pema, eyeing her uncertainly. “That was mine,” she said, in a tone somewhere between pleading and demanding, “give it back.” Pema, avoiding her gaze, turned to me. “Peter dropped it,” she said, matter-of-factly, then retreated in my direction.
Peter had, it’s true, dropped his entire collection only moments after hording it. “Yeah,” he called out now, “I don’t need them.” But I had no way of knowing whether the feather in Pema’s hand had once been in Peter’s, who, as he spoke, had his eyes focused on the sand in which he was digging. Anyway, I didn’t really want to settle this dispute. Who possesses a bird feather, after all? What makes us think that, because we picked something up off the ground, it now belongs to us? Or, having put the same object back down, as Guinevere had, that we still retain ownership? Possession, it turns out, is a famously tricky subject, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, a panel of the most educated lawyers in the nation, has stated that, "there is no word more ambiguous in its meaning than possession.”
It was Guinevere’s turn to hide the clip, a small carabiner that fit snugly into the palm of her hand. Smooth and round, with a little spring-loaded clasp, it was the perfect little object for twiddling and fussing. Hidden among the yellowing leaves of a currant bush, or tucked under a slim gray stone, the clip’s brushed metallic finish blended in perfectly with the environment, but stuck out just enough.
We had played the little hide and seek game all the way down the canyon, the children taking turns walking ahead with me to hide the clip, then hooting like owls to call the others to the chase. Tumbling over rocks and roots, the children would spill down the canyon walls in search of that curious little clip. The game, which involves keen vision and exploration, also requires the hider to keep a secret, a challenging task for a five-year-old. It is therefore also a game of patience.
“What do you think?” I asked Guinevere, “Want to hide it over here?” I pointed to a pool of gray-blue stones which resembled ice cubes melting in the sun. “No…” she answered, shrugging me off. I wanted her to choose, but I could see that she, like many of the children, was so beguiled with her turn that she had a hard time making a choice. “How about over here?” I suggested, pointing to a slim crevice between two boulders. Then her face lit up. I followed her eyes over my shoulder to a broad juniper growing on the side of an embankment. Underneath, its long, flowing branches made a perfect little hiding spot. “Let’s go,” I said.
Smiling eagerly, Guinevere began climbing the smooth, worn boulder which stood between her and the juniper, while I kept an ear out for the other children. They were only fifty feet away. “No peaking!” I reminded them, spying Sebastian’s winter hat poking above the top of a rock. It quickly sank below.
I turned and climbed after Guinevere. I cover terrain like this all the time, but this boulder was like sculpted butter. The size of a tow-truck, the massive rock was filled with scallops and pockets that sloped and dipped, rounded and bulged. The entire surface was smooth as a baby’s butt. Finally, I made my way over the top and to the juniper. As I approached, Guinevere turned to me with wide, dazzling eyes. “Look!” she said.
Under the tree, on top of a thick carpet of dried twigs and tiny paper-blue berries, was a veritable sea of feathers, orange and brown, gray and white. It was obviously a recent kill, and though the meat and bones were gone, the entire bird’s plumes were spread before us, even the milky-soft down, which, encouraged by the movement of our breath, skittered about handsomely.
“Pemalina, come on,” I begged, hoping to resolve the conflict with guilt. It wasn’t exactly a conscious choice, but, seeing as Pema had at least seven or eight feathers crammed into her fist, I assumed she could just as easily part with one. I was wrong.
“No!” Pema answered, drawing close to me. She was trying to hold her ground, but it was unsteady. Guinevere, on the other hand, was firm. I glanced back and forth, wondering what to do. Whether Guinevere had put that exact feather down before climbing the boulder, or whether Peter had indeed dropped one of his nearby – it was hard to know. Anyway, the issue wasn’t primarily about the feather, which, like Peter’s, would most likely be left behind as other games and treasures revealed themselves.
The real issue, I knew, was control, not so much of the world and others, but of one’s own perceptions. Guinevere had all the reason in the world to believe the feather was hers. So did Pema. But they couldn’t both be right. This is hard enough for adults to navigate peacefully, not to mention entire nations. So, how were these two five-year-olds to do it without squashing one another?
But there was another issue at play: me. The whole it’s-mine-it’s-yours game is difficult enough when you have peers, but harder still when I’m the teacher of both and the father of one. How do I remain fair and objective? And yet, how do I reassure my daughter that I am her champion? Like many parents, I so fear the consequences of favoring my own child that I probably ask too much of her. Hadn’t I just tried, unsuccessfully, to guilt Pema into giving the feather back? I would never have done that to Guinevere.
But even beyond the intricacies of objective fairness, I was just as concerned about perceived fairness. I need these kids to trust me, each and every one of them, and I can’t allow them to believe, even if it’s a false belief, that I favor one of them. What makes this whole school work – what makes climbing distant side canyons, sliding down boulders and discovering animals, living and dead, work – is trust, trust between the children, and between them and me. Without it, we are in real danger.
So, as I stood in this little pool of sand, some miles from any paved road, I struggled to find a way to honor the autonomy of both children. And there was a split second when I might have pulled it off, but suddenly Guinevere, to my surprise, began bawling, and I caved in. “Pema,” I said, looking her sternly in the face, “you need to give the feather back.”
The flicker, a tawny bird with speckled breast and wings, is common in the mountains and canyons of New Mexico. Because of its distinctive color and flight pattern (approaching a tree, it has a tendency to swoop up at the last minute, wings wide, almost hovering, to land softly on the trunk, an eye-catching maneuver), it is an easy bird to identify, and young children often come to recognize it by the age of two or three.
On the ground or in a tree, a flicker is mostly brown and white, the males having a red patch on the throat. But in the air, swooping from tree to tree, the bird has a unique orange hue, which is plainly revealed when you find one of its feathers. Mostly brown and white, the quills are a pearlescent sort of orange, an immediate attention-grabber. Having discovered one lying upon the ground, almost any person, child or adult, will pick it up.
One spring, when Pema was four, a pair of flickers made their nest outside our home. Like most woodpeckers, their nests are usually located in tree trunks and other woodland cavities, but this particular couple chose to build theirs in the wood siding of our second floor. At first, it was a just a curiosity, and many of us at New Buffalo watched good-naturedly, with only a minor concern for the building. But once the couple managed to drill through the three-quarter-inch planks, they began plucking tufts of insulation out, spreading little wisps of fiberglass, like milkweed, all over the lawn. That’s when the novelty wore off.
Fiberglass is famously nasty stuff, and aside from wishing it to stay inside the walls, I was concerned about the children getting it into their hands, mouths and lungs. I spent a couple hours one day cleaning every last bit of downy-soft glass from the yard, while a housemate climbed up a ladder and nailed the lid from a tin can over the hole.
Pema, having heard my stern directive, complied with my wish, at least in name. Thrusting the feather out with one hand, she drew just close enough for Guinevere, who was still sobbing, to reach it, then withdrew. Instantly consoled, Guinevere turned and ran to the top of the boulder with the slide, while Pema, looking downcast, withdrew to my pantleg. I still had no idea whose feather it was.
You’d think I would have left it at that, but then, grumbling at my own feelings of inadequacy, I turned to Pema and said, “You need to apologize.” Pema, of course, felt crushed, and for good reason. I had totally overruled her perception. Whether she was right about the feather or not, she certainly thought she was (I didn’t think she was lying). Wriggling pitifully beneath me, still wishing, more than anything, to have me as her guide and champion, that is, her father, she had, simultaneously, to struggle with the plain fact that her teacher, that is, her father, had misperceived the situation and wronged her. Truth was not exactly the pressing matter. Wrestling all this, with or without awareness, she looked at me and said in a demanding voice, “Come with me.”
“Okay,” I answered, “I’ll go with you.” The two of us walked up to Guinevere, who, having slid down the boulder, now stood at the bottom. Both looked sheepish. “I’m sorry,” Pema said, then turned away, eager to be done with it. Guinevere ran back to the top of the slide. “Wait,” I said, “Guinevere, did you hear that?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Okay,” I said, in a now-we’re-done-voice, “thanks you two.” I walked a little ways off and sat down in the sand. Pema followed. Placing my hands on the ground, I felt the coarse grains against the skin of my palms. I knew I hadn’t handled that expertly, but I wasn’t altogether sure I had bungled it. Beyond all the fairness and control issues, it was important to resolve it…somehow. At least, these are the kinds of things I said to myself to relieve my guilt.
Pema lingered for a minute or two, then ran off to Peter, who was still burying rocks in the sand. Children have a hard time dodging conflict, but rebound expertly.
I wish I had something more complete to write, a resolution that makes the whole encounter tingle with relief. I don’t. That moment, for whatever reason, stuck with me, and I think it’s because I respect these kids so much. I want to help them unravel the tangle of feelings and facts, the needs of oneself, the needs of each other. I think that’s a big reason why I write these stories. I need to understand myself, these moments, so I can be the best father and caregiver I can be.
Why did I just turn to Pema and make her take the blame? Because she’s my daughter, and Guinevere is just my student? Or is it because Guinevere cried and Pema did not? Or because Pema had several feathers in her hands and Guinevere had none? In retrospect, I don’t think I was fair to either of them, not because I didn’t perfectly navigate the conflict, but because I took their autonomy away when I forced a resolution.
The day after I cleaned up all the glass fuzz on the lawn, the flickers were back at it. Pema and I had come outside to meet Ruby, our playmate next door. Grateful to be in the chill of an early spring day, the girls ran into the greening grass as I watched one of the birds, perched two inches to the left of the tin lid, pecking away at another hole.
Now, I am the kind of person that believes my jacket, philosophy and semantics be damned, is mine. And if I set it down in the park, or at someone else’s house, I fully expect to pick it up later on without question. My wallet is mine too. And my car. And my house. I’ll even get angry and wave my arms about if necessary. But I will say this – that bird. If I spend the rest of my life eating food and living inside boxes that I think are mine, I hope that bird keeps coming ‘round, poking holes.