I took my last 2 days of call break some weeks ago.
On my first day, I ran all my errands, one of which was to open a new joint bank account with my mum. I wore my RJ shorts, the psychedelic oversized tie-dye t-shirt that S gave me, and slippers. The banker that spoke to us was very professional. When I told her my occupation was a lawyer, she only glanced at my psychedelic oversized tie-dye t-shirt once.
On the second day, I crashed H’s kindergarten class. I gave a Whale Talk about Jonah, Selkies, and Tonga. Amazingly, I held their attention for a full hour.
At the end of the two days, I had 72 emails in my work inbox.
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands , and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
– John 17:18-19
I have had a couple of opportunities to juxtapose adults and children recently.
One such opportunity was a family gathering on Elections Day. I spent most of that gathering playing with 7-year-old H, 4-year-old N, and 2-year-old A. They have very cool names.
They had a box of country erasers that they emptied all over the living room floor. Flooded with waves of nostalgia, I wasted little time in joining H and N to build a line of dominoes and/or a house / castle / tower. 2-year-old A would come around every now and then and smash everything. H and N would just laugh and start rebuilding again.
I asked H and N whether the three of them fought with each other. They replied with innocence and gravitas, “Yes.”
At one point, H and N were trying to find Jordan. I tried telling them that Jordan was not a state. They found Jordan a little while later in a separate bag.
It is a good thing that kids that age do not know how to gloat or mock.
They loved the United Nations because it was “powerful” (laughs). In a bid to redeem my earlier ignorance, I pointed out to H how special the map in the UN logo was. Maps are inherently biased: most world maps are Eurocentric, but even if not, a map would inevitably have to favour another political region as its centre. Whereas the UN, prizing neutrality, put Antarctica at the centre of its world map, and the other continents followed radially outwards.
“Interesting?” I asked.
H stared blankly back at me.
I got called to the Adults Table a while later. My aunt had also been a lawyer; we chatted a little about how work had been, and the differences between commercial litigation and corporate work. My 19-year-old cousin came down shortly after. There were concerns about what he would study in university. The adults toyed around with the option of veterinary science, after eliminating the usual suspects like law and medicine.
My cousin plays Warhammer 40k, and he wants to study military science.
“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows,” says John Betjeman.
Out of the corner of my eye, I continued watching what the kids were building with their country erasers. I zoned out of the conversation. Then I escaped to rejoin the kids.
When my parents came looking for me to go home, they found me fast asleep in a corner. I was exhausted. I had a lot of fun.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
– 1 Corinthians 13:11
That same weekend, I had supper with salt. Inevitably, we talked about the Elections. The next time we met a couple of weeks later, we talked about stocks and insurance. Even one as recklessly uninformed as I was helpless to the inexorable need to sound like an adult.
In the wake of those meet ups, I felt brief stabs of sorrow. I felt that we had lost something. We used to talk about such wonderful things; now we talk about such worldly things.
I finished P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation of The Graveyard Book a couple of days ago. Gaiman’s macabre parallel to The Jungle Book is one of my absolute favourite stories of all time. Re-reading it brought back such waves of halcyon wonder.
Sometimes, I feel like I stand on the cusp between Silas and Bod, between the obligations of work and the longings of youth, between adulthood and childhood. It takes so little for a boy yearning to hug to grow up into a man who cannot be hugged.
But perhaps, then, the converse is also true.
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.
– Mark 10:14
The night before my Whale Talk, I got stressed. I have delivered sessions to audiences ranging from 12-year-olds to 26-year-olds. But I had never spoken to a group of 3-year-olds.
“What if the kids don’t like me?” I asked SSS. “If a 3-year-old doesn’t like you, it’s like… 无药可救.”
That would be the ultimate rejection: a 3-year-old dislikes you not because you have or do not have certain attributes, he / she simply dislikes you as a person.
Of course, my fears were absolutely unfounded.
The moment I stepped into the classroom, the kids stared at me curiously. By the time I had read them a couple of stories, joined in their morning assembly, and sang their action songs with them (sidenote: they have superior action songs that we could really learn from), there were no longer any holds barred. I was beleaguered by a myriad demands for “korkor Melvyn” to sit with one, talk to another, show me something, teach them something, read a book to them, read a different book to them, play with them.
H (who was clearly in her element) had to save me from the kids quite a few times. And it was only breakfast.
In the short walks from the classroom to the toilet and back, the kids would cling to my hands, cling to my jeans, and cling on to those that had already clung on to me. They encircled me. Living with 3 golden retrievers, I am no stranger to the need for physical touch. But even then, I had never felt so beset by intimacy.
During one of these walks, a girl asked me, “What is the name of your friend?”
“Which friend?” I said.
“Your girlfriend,” she said.
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said. What are they teaching these kids, I wondered.
“I also don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. What are they teaching these kids, I wondered again.
“Then what kind of friend do you have?” she asked. There was not a hint of insincerity in her question.
“Uh… Normal friends?”
It was exhausting; though the kids never took anything from me. They only made me want to give. It was almost vampiric (in the Louis way, rather than the Eli way).
When it was time for them to nap, several of them came up to me asking for help to change into their pyjamas. Apparently (as I found out later from H), my presence had made them forget how to do it themselves. They had also conveniently forgot how to fall asleep by themselves: many of them needed me (and the other teachers) to pat them to sleep.
One girl asked me, “Will you still be around when I wake up?”
At that point, I lost all hope of doing anything else with the rest of my day.
Kids are so irreproachably conniving. Their manipulation techniques are as diverse as how motley a group they are. One would be unabashedly overt, coming right to the front to demand attention. One would be slothfully lethargic, needing us to carry or cajole him as the rest of the class waited for him. One would stare at me in fascination, then look away shyly when I caught his eye. One would run around and scream at random moments.
Of such is the kingdom of God indeed.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
– Matthew 18:3
“I feel that I have re-discovered the joys of ice-cream,” my colleague A said to me a couple of months back.
I wholly agree. Be it llao llao’s Sanum, Merely Ice Cream’s salted butterscotch, or the Haagen Daaz sticks, cold and creamy sugar has become my indulgent reprieve to toil. On the days that I feel that ice-cream is better company than people, I will take a slow walk out, have a simple meal, buy my scoop of happiness, and savour those brief sweet moments.
Ice-cream was never meant to last. But perhaps it can still be re-discovered.