“Can I tell you a secret?”
I freeze as I look down at a set of concerned blue eyes staring up into mine. I am sitting in the back of a kindergarten classroom at a desk covered in flashcards and sight words. Since being hired as a part-time educational aide, this is where I now spend my afternoons.
After years of teaching in a high school, I enjoy working with the younger kids. I love the unexpected things that come out of their mouths. When it is their turn to work with me, they skip back to the desk and tell me about their brothers and sisters, their pets, and their stuffed animals as I try to get them to sound out correct vowel sounds.
They tell me stories like, I wasn’t really sick yesterday. My grandma took me to the bounce house instead of school! or I ate ten pieces of Easter candy when no one was looking! They can’t wait to reveal who got in trouble on the bus, or who threw up at daycare. They show me their boo-boos and their new hair barrettes, and they love to demonstrate how they learned to tie their shoes.
Their stories usually amuse me … but the word ‘secret’ has me worried.
The girl tucks a strand of shiny blonde hair behind her ear to reveal a puckered mouth and furrowed brow. Her hands clasp pages of sight words that we have been practicing, but her serious eyes don’t leave my face.
“You can’t tell anyone, though,” she adds. Something tightens in my chest and my heart beats faster as I work out a response.
My mind immediately shifts to panic mode. Is she about to confess some awful secret to me? Hundreds of terrible news headlines flash through my head. The headlines that I quickly turn off when my own children enter the room. The kind that keep me up at night.
What if something awful is happening to this little girl? Is she being hurt? Abused? Neglected?
I immediately start to think of how I will respond to what is about to come out of her mouth. I am not used to dealing with students of this age. I am grateful that the guidance counselor’s office is right next door.
I take a deep breath and am prepared to hear the worst, but before I can respond to her plea to not tell anyone, she continues in a low voice.
“Me and my sister are going to …..” She pauses, looks behind her back, and then exclaims, “… turn into MERMAIDS!”
My jaw drops as she rushes on in a flurry of excitement. “It’s going to happen on Sunday. I don’t know how we are going to come to school next week! It will be awful because we won’t have water!”
I sink back into my chair, relief flooding my body as she giggles and worries with excitement about what will happen when she turns into a mermaid. There is no abuse or neglect going on here. Her biggest concerns right now are: What color will my tail be? How will I ride the bus with a tail? How can I play on the playground during recess because there is no pool? What will the teacher say?
Despite the list of students that I still need to work with, I let her chatter on for a bit. I am so unbelievably grateful that this little girl’s biggest worry is how her imaginary game will play out. I am so grateful for this reminder that despite sad headlines and awful news, imaginations are still at work. There is still room for magic in this world.
Kids will still prefer skipping to the bus stop instead of walking. They will continually be shushed for shouting with joy instead of whispering in class. They will keep on wishing on stars and birthday candles and dandelion puffs for ridiculous things. And, with the utmost sincerity, little girls will keep believing that over the weekend they might just turn into mermaids.