I have the most terrible bedside manner, if you can call it that. One of my students sidled beside me on our way back into the classroom from recess and announced somberly, “My fish died.” It was almost as if the thought had caught her off guard, the way her eyes registered disbelief and her eyebrows furrowed consolingly inward.
I paused a moment, having been as taken by surprise as her, and offered the usual condolence, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Except I actually was. It wasn’t just something that came tumbling from my mouth out of habit. I really was sorry to know that she was experiencing loss. Even if only the loss of a fish. But then who’s to say a pet fish death is inconsequential?
Anyhow, the child was clearly sad. She had been running around and giggling just a moment ago, but now she was grief stricken. It was an interesting type of melancholy to witness. One that sneaks up on you and sinks in its teeth, right when you think you’re alright. It looked familiar. She seemed almost more perplexed by the experience than hurt. Like it was the first time she was digesting such a feeling. I think we can learn a great deal about humanity from watching and engaging with children. The way their fresh souls experience things and churn out certain reactions is pretty fascinating.
She turned my expression of empathy over in her mouth a little and assumed an appreciative but resigned little pout. My condolence had done nothing to solve the problem of the fish’s now lack of existence, but she recognized, even as someone so young, that there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t help her anymore than she had helped her dear little fish herself.
“Yeah,” she replied to both our unspoken confessions.
“That’s just the way things happen in life,” I explained, though she clearly had already experienced this truth for herself. “Things are born and eventually they die,” I continued. “Even you and me.”
Maybe not the best time to remind a 7 year old that she’s a finite creature. That’s a pretty scary realization for a child.
Heck, it’s scary even for most adults. But I thought it was a valuable learning moment to put things into perspective. Everything dies. Plants, animals, humans, you name it. It’s just an irrefutable thing that happens. It’s what those that are left behind do with the memory that makes it a happy or sad event. It doesn’t have to be Earth shattering. In fact, the Earth has proven to keep spinning time and time again. Whether that’s cruel or not is our interpretation.
Our class is learning about what soil’s composed of in science and part of the state standard requires the students be taught that it’s made up of small rocks and once-living things. At first I was surprised they went into such detail, went as far as to mention the role of death in soil’s composition. We so often shelter our children from the realities of life. But in the end, I thought it a very healthy thing to reveal, even to such young people. I honestly believe that it’s when people start becoming blindsided as unguided preteens and teenagers, and even adults, by obvious tidbits of life like this, that we develop adverse reactions and consequently unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with them. We ignore things, suppress them, refuse to digest them. Until it creeps up on us in a traumatic way that’s close to us and then we implode and wonder why. I think it’s only natural little ones be taught to get used to this cycle, with some easing in of course.
I mean, just think about it. All organisms that are now alive are literally living off of the remains of animals and people that have passed away. Whether you’re vegetarian or not, you’re benefiting off of the expired life force of another. It’s morbid, yes, but also sort of amazing how well in tune that works.
I didn’t get to expound on this Simba-esque circle of life sort of idea, and probably for the best. I don’t know. But at that point, one of my other students had butt in with his own wisdom.
“I was born,” he declared. “I think I was two years old at that time.”
Which I then had to chuckle at and call time to start walking in line for writing period. It diffused some of the tension in the air as I corrected him and told him he would have been zero. He looked dumbfounded that such an age was possible and my fish-less student soon relaxed as her mind probably wandered to some other topic.
In any case, despite my bedside manner being perhaps a little too frank, she took it in stride. As children often do.