Bronwyn rushes to the window, which I have left partly open to let some early spring air into the room. She’s thrilled as she looks outside and feels the air on her face. “I can feel the cold coming in!” she exclaims as the wind begins to leak through the screen and playfully flirt with her uncombed tresses. Other children catch onto the excitement and pull up chairs by the window, their knobby knees balancing on one another and they are so thrilled with the air and the half-melted snow on the ground. “Hi Snow!” Sophia exclaims, “How are you feeling?” and the world seems to smile, as if it has found a companion who finds solace in him.
Bronwyn is my teacher – my four-year-old teacher. At a time when most people are graduating college, I was being discharged from the ICU with one less stomach and a few (dozens) more surgeries. Medically stable, but emotionally drained, I yearned for some way to replenish my spirit and to discover a sense of self once again. After organ failure, a coma, and a multitude of surgical disasters, who was I now?
With IVs, feeding tubes and daily nurse visits, I wasn’t quite ready to go off to college yet. Instead, I found unexpected life lessons in a Westport Connecticut nursery school classroom, where I was hired as an aide for three and four-year-olds. Instantly, I understood, after life was almost taken away from me, what matters most in life. I learned how to be fully present, the value of play, what it means to have a friend, the healing that comes from communication and working with others. After only speaking with my family and with medical professionals for years, I regained a sense of innocence which created a richer sense of wisdom.
I found innocence in what traumatic medical interventions had threatened to take away -– a fascination with the little things, like scooping up dried rice with a plastic spoon. It made me happy – a word that gradually crept back into my awareness like a long lost friend.
Every day at the preschool brought a new life lesson. One morning, an adorable three-year-old Isabelle was sitting tucked inside of her cubby, staring down at the floor with her ankles sadly crossed. What’s wrong? I asked her. She replied, I’m very sad today. When I asked why, she said, I can’t think of any Star Wars adventures to dream about so I don’t know what I am going to make-believe today! I was touched by how Isabelle depended on the safe haven of her fantasies to pass the time, the adventures in her mind as the highlight of her day, and if she couldn’t find those dreams in her that day, then the day was lost. I was almost envious of how she clung to that importance, and it made me wish that my imagination was vivid enough to be my world that I could play in, rather than fret over medical circumstances beyond my control. I realized I needed to find my “Star Wars Adventures Dreams,” like Isabelle. Then, how could I be sad?
I was once a daydreaming child just like Isabelle. After my life-saving surgeries at 18 years old, I gained my life back but lost the only world I knew. Defeated, my “inspiration” became worn. and my imagination lost its bubbliness, fizzling into “survival mode.” Teaching nursery school, I learned to re-trust those buried-away fantasies and ideas in my mind, and allow them to send me soaring for the day, not caring where they ended up landing. Sometimes all it takes is a daydream to make us feel the joy of our aliveness. Other times, we just need to do is tuck ourselves inside of a cubby with Isabelle, and wish for more dreams to replenish our souls.
When I taught nursery school, for the first time after my coma, I rethought everything I “knew” about life. I realized that I didn’t “lose” my sense of purpose in the operating room, but rather, that my purpose had taken a new direction – a beautiful, child-like detour. Isabelle would have said I was going on a treasure hunt for health, a heroic hero’s journey, an epic Star Wars Adventure Day Dream.
My nursery school children taught me what it means to feel “safe” in uncertainty. Just like Bronwyn rushes to the window in the back corner and presses her face to the screen, I want to run and press my nose to my window just as Bronwyn did. Remember me? Hi sun! I am your newborn child. I know you are safe, I just have to take that leap, which is always a little scary at first, like the scary adrenaline rush you get running off the diving board at the deep end of the community swimming pool.
But I also want to laugh, just like my nursery school children, who know that laughing is always the best remedy. It’s okay to be out in the world and just have a good time, to run to the window and just say “Hi Sun!” and to spin around in circles round and round until you are so dizzy that you fall down and get grass stains on the back of your pants. It’s not about what we accomplish, but what we dream, because those dreams are seeds of the soul we have yet to know, but all to look forward to.
Watching my nursery school children make rice-scooping decisions, build playful relationships, make creative discoveries, and laugh at beautiful mistakes, I gained confidence in my own life circumstances. More importantly, I learned that happiness is not such a lofty ambition. It’s as available to me as the nearest package of dried rice at the grocery store. As I continued to be challenged with medical hurdles milestones that seemed beyond my capabilities, I dove into my “Star Wars Adventure Dreams” and found an imaginative way to face my struggles head-on. Surviving and thriving through anything is child’s play.
And that’s what I learned in nursery school.