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space for sadness

Before I tell you about the gift I gave Laura, I should tell you about the gifts Laura gave me. A hug each time I passed in the hall. A raised hand for every question I asked in class. More songs than I can count: songs I taught her, songs she brought from home, songs she invented. Like her older sister Margaret, Laura was the personification of cleverness and exuberance: a pint-sized Hermione Granger.

Laura singing at a concert

One morning, as a special treat, we spent our entire class time playing music “games.” Watching the transcendent glee inspired by educationally valid activities warmed my smug teacherly heart. True to form, Laura danced and shone like a diamond on a chain. Well, until the end of class. In our final rounds of “Closet Key” she begged to be chosen to hide the key, but we ran out of time.

I could see the tears brimming Laura’s eyes as we sang our closing song and lined up at the door. I pulled her aside as the rest of the group filed back to class. I already knew why she was upset, but I asked anyway.

“I’ve never had a turn to hide the key!” she moaned.

“Never?” I asked dubiously. We’d played the game quite a few times before.

“Never,” she confirmed, dissolving into full-on tears.

I started scooping up a serving of perspective. “You might not have gotten to hide the key, but you sat in the center of the circle for Button You Must Wander. I try to give everyone a turn to do something special, but no one can do ALL the special things on the same day.”

My insights impacted Laura like a lit match impacts the ocean. I took a deep breath. I wanted to fix this situation: to convince Laura that her reaction was disproportionate to the problem, to send her out the door with tools that would quell such outbursts down the road. My efforts were failing.

I gave up. I patted her sobbing shoulder and sighed. “I understand why you feel sad, sweetie. I’m sorry it hurts.” She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. As if by magic, she emerged from the hug wiping her cheeks. A glint of light had already returned to her eyes.

I watched her walk calmly out of my room. By the time she reached the stairs she’d resumed her customary canter. When she reached the upper landing it hit me: I’d just given Laura what I struggle to give myself.

I’ve spent decades lecturing myself on acceptable responses to upsetting situations. Right around Laura’s age, I began to discern that my sadness wasn’t welcome. Perhaps adults looked at me the way I looked at Laura. You’ve got it good, little girl. Don’t complain. Don’t cry. Here, I’ll scoop you up a serving of perspective.

But all Laura needed was space for her sadness. She didn’t need logic; she needed a hug. No matter how clever or exuberant a person may be, she still has a right to burst into tears. Indeed, a propensity for extravagant gladness often correlates with a propensity for unwieldy sadness.

We give certain graces to others before we dare give them to ourselves. In the midst of this challenging year, I often think of that moment with Laura. Perhaps the tears we reason away accumulate within us. Perhaps this is the year I let all mine out. Once the stormy season passes – whether it lasts a moment or many months – the light returns.

Laura shares at an assembly

special thanks to Margaret Mell & Doug Bowker for these photographs!