I believe in the power of instinctive human connection.
Mrs. Madole, my adored 1st grade teacher, asked me to become a “special friend” to a new girl who would be joining my class. Her name was Maria and her family had just moved into the neighborhood. I was needed as a kind of a guide for her, tasked with showing her how to navigate the challenging world of the first grade. I was eager to please my teacher, happy to help her.
When Maria came to our class, I hardly noticed that she spoke not a word of English, except, of course, for the word no. We quickly developed an intense friendship, spending many hours together, on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the neighborhood. I don’t recall how we communicated, but I remember the time with Maria as if it happened yesterday, and I feel only happiness when I do remember. Then, one day, Maria just didn’t come to school anymore; she and her family had quietly moved away. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten those few months when we depended so much on each other.
Years later, when my youngest daughter was in the 1st grade, she began talking about a new friend. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that Sydney’s new friend, just like my pal Maria, spoke no English! Seung Eun was Korean and she had not yet developed the ability to communicate in our language. Sydney and Seung Eun were great friends, inseparable, really, and Seung Eun’s command of the English language improved every day. Their friendship ended in the 4th grade when Seung Eun went away on a visit to her parent’s home country. Later, the visit became a permanent move. Sydney was sad when Seung Eun moved away, but, today, as a 19 year old college student, she remembers their time together with real happiness.
We were a mother and daughter from different generations, different worlds, really; what was it about us that made us instinctively open to those very special connections with strangers? And more importantly, what made us open to friendship with strangers with whom we had no obvious ability to communicate – at least at the beginning? I believe that Sydney and I were able to open ourselves to our new friends, as they opened themselves to us, because we were all still innocent, untouched by the biases of the world around us. The social messages that influence us to feel fear and distrust just didn’t exist in our young lives. It was only later, as we became more aware of the social norms of our world, that we encountered challenges to embracing difference.
One thing I know absolutely; I’d give anything to possess that innocence again, to feel freedom to reach out to any other person in need of a meaningful connection. How lovely the world would be if we all could do that!
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