Dear newcomers to my blog,
Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial on this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels. You can find previous chapters in the side menu categories under “Driving the Camel: Adventures of a Child Life Specialist.
…There was one more thing that Garth wanted to show me. He led me across the pasture and into a copse of trees that felt like an elven forest straight out of the Lord of the Rings. We hiked for a bit until I saw another large outcropping of rock. As we approached it, I could see a small opening in the rock face.
“The cave you just climbed through; that’s nothing. This is where I used to take kids abseiling,” he said. “We’d tie up a rope here, and drop them about 100 feet down into the cave. The stream you saw in the other cave – it comes out here. So, we’d lower them down and then they’d swim out.”
“A terrifying thought,” I said.
“Naw, more like exhilarating,” he countered. “They loved it, every single one of ‘em.”
As we knocked the mud off our shoes and stowed our headlamps in the car, Garth asked me what I was doing the rest of the day. I told him I had nothing planned, just a stop at the grocery store in town..
“Well then,” he said. “I sure would like to take you home to see my farm.”
I hesitated. As a New Yorker, I wasn’t used to receiving invitations from virtual strangers, and my city sensibility was on high alert for ulterior motives. But then again, this sure as hell wasn’t New York, and I had gone into a cave with him. Why not visit his home?
“Okay, but I’ll have to stop by where I’m staying for clean pants,” I said. “I refuse to enter your house looking like I just pooped myself!”
Laughing, Garth grabbed a towel from the trunk and laid it on the passenger seat for me to sit on. He then reached into the glove compartment for a pouch of tobacco and deftly rolled himself a cigarette.
“You just have to promise not to tell Clair,” he said. “My wife hates it when I smoke.” I turned an invisible key at my lips and tossed it over my shoulder. I have to admit, the mention of his wife put me at ease a bit more about accepting his invitation.
After a quick stop at the beach house for a change of clothes, Garth drove us south and inland. The land we passed was all farmland, low hills dotted with sheep and cows. As we sped along the winding road, I asked him more about his work with kids.
“Tell me about a kid you worked with who taught you the most.”
“Well, there was this one disabled boy. He was in a wheelchair, a paraplegic, but he didn’t want to miss out on the fun. He wanted to abseil into a cave with everyone else. So we had to rig up a thing like a stretcher, and we lowered him down this whole way, where we’d made a raft to carry him. Everyone had to work together to move him through the cave. I never saw a kid more happy than that, and the other kids were so good about it too. I think it taught us all something.”
I felt a deep sense of kinship with him listening to this story. The children I’d worked with had been my best teachers over the years as well, even when the learning was painful. One of the earliest lessons in my career came from Ruthie. She called me “F**ky” and “Stupid.” She kicked at me and spat on me. Not just once. More like a continual fountain of saliva coming my way. All of this in the hallway of her preschool. Teachers and children walked past, their mouths agape while my face burned with shame. I have always been a furious blusher, a trait that induces intense feelings of humiliation and vulnerability. Ruthie and I were having our therapeutic play session in the hallway because there was no private space available. Transitions were hard for Ruthie; my request at the end of our session for her to put away her toys and return to her classroom had set her off. Along with the name calling, kicking, and spitting, she had thrown herself on the floor and was refusing to budge. My inability to control Ruthie and make her behave in public made my blood rise, pulsing in my cheeks and neck. As a heavy-set four-year-old, she had the ability to go limp in a way that made it virtually impossible to move her. She may have had few words at her disposal, but enough to get the point across: she was not done with playing and had no intention of obeying me.
Shame was not the only emotion I felt. My exposed lack of power fueled ire. Having been brought up to obey my elders, I wanted to smack her for her flagrant disregard of my authority. Professional ethics prevented me from acting on it, but at that moment all I could think was “Ethics, schmethics! This kid is pissing me off!” As a graduate school intern, I was on the cusp of learning skills of empathy, humor, and creativity that would assist us through such moments. Through my interactions with Ruthie, I learned that authority is not automatically conferred, but something earned through building rapport and mutual respect. It would be moments like these, when I felt the most helpless, foolish, embarrassed, and even rageful, that my most significant learning would unfurl. At the time I had no idea that Ruthie was planting the seeds of my professional expertise.
Ruthie lay in a noodle-like heap on the floor, as I squatted on my haunches beside her. Taking a deep breath, I made the executive decision to face both of our emotions rather than to continue in our power struggle. I contorted my features into an exaggerated, angry face, scrunching my nose, pushing out my lips, and furrowing my brow. I rumbled a low growl.
“I am the cleanup monster!” I declared. “I hate cleaning up and I hate going back to class.”
Grabbing the bag and roughly shoving toys into it, I growled as I narrated my actions.
“I’m gonna take this dolly and put it in here.”
I looked at Ruthie. She watched me out of the corner of her eye, a smile curling one end of her mouth. I snarled at her and she let out a chuckle. As she sat up, I took advantage of the momentum. Behind her, I scooped my hands beneath her armpits and hoisted her up, hoping to God my back would withstand the weight. She was compliant as I wedged her between my legs, grabbing each of her hands like a puppeteer.
“I’m the cleanup monster,” I rasped. “And now I’m gonna put all these toys away!”
I manipulated her hands so that she grabbed the toys and pushed them into the bag. By now she was chortling and giggling. Relief swept over me as we picked up the last toy. Remembering how I used to waltz with my father by standing on his shoes, I placed her feet on top of mine and forced her to take knee-locked steps. We monster-stomped all the way back to her classroom.