Thin Places


Penny and William went to school together today for the
first time. This year, Penny will be in a public preschool program every
afternoon, and she and William will both attend a local private preschool on
Monday and Wednesday mornings. William was delighted to join his sister at
“tool,” although a little disappointed that they don’t get to ride the bus

Penny is happier on days when she goes to school. She talks in
full sentences. She says “please” and “thank you.” Maybe it’s in her genes (both
of her parents seem to like school). Maybe it’s her love for other people. But I
also wonder if part of her love of school has to do with her need to learn.

I’ve written before about what we call Penny’s “Helen
Keller” moment, when she first understood that every object had a corresponding
name. She went from a handful of signs to dozens, virtually overnight. My
mother, a preschool teacher, commented later on the significance of Penny’s
signing. “She’s shown all of us, including herself, that she can learn.”

But the way Penny learns is different from William. He
doesn’t so much learn as absorb. When he was learning to walk, we didn’t teach
him. He just did it. When he was learning to talk, there were no exercises
involved, no therapists, no step-by-step progress. He just said stuff. And the
same is true for almost everything else: Throw him in a pool and his little
legs start to kick. Give him a guitar and he’ll strum it. Hand him a stick and
he’ll tell you all the things he’s imagining it could be. Hand him a piece of
paper and he’ll narrate the scribbles: “I am sending an email to Dad. Dear Dad.
I love you.”

Penny had to learn each of these things one step at a time.
Walking involved months of training on a baby treadmill, braces for her ankles, special spandex shorts to keep her hips together. Talking involved
mimicking my mouth, drinking out of special straws, and watching “Signing
Times” to learn signs when the words just wouldn’t come. When she wants to be
able to read a book out loud by herself, she stares at my mouth so she can see
how the words are formed before trying them herself. She works hard to learn.
All the time.

And yet, even though they learn differently, Penny’s happy
to be a teacher for her brother. Just yesterday, I found her taking his hands
to help him learn the sign for “friend.” It’s because she loves school that he
wants to be there. He admires her. He looks up to her, although at two-years
old, he can’t say why. I have to imagine that his love and admiration will
remain. For his sister, his teacher, his friend.

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