I am currently reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the awesome virtual book club that I have with my best college girlfriends (virtual because we are scattered far and wide around the US…and the world). I really relate to Francie, the main character, who lives inside of her elaborate imagination much of the time. As a child, I often preferred daydreaming and getting lost in my thoughts to interacting with others. I felt like I was on a different wavelength than my peers most of the time. Despite this, I have always liked people, and I learned to balance my inner world with healthy doses of living in the real world and interacting with others, thankfully. My parents were probably worried for a little while. 🙂 I’m still a dreamer, but I’ve lost a lot of that magic that I saw in the world as a child. This is why seeing Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century through the imagination of Francie resonates with me in a way that feels simultaneously refreshing and nostalgic.
Reading this novel, I was also reminded of the children I worked with during my first year of grad school who were living in extreme poverty. I conducted a counseling group designed to build self esteem and team work during an after school program at an elementary school. What’s so interesting about children in poverty is that they haven’t necessarily been exposed to the outside world enough to know how bad their circumstances are. If it’s all they’ve known, then they don’t KNOW to feel discontent…to wish for something grander. I think it would have been easier for Francie to remain blissfully ignorant about her socioeconomic status than it is for children today with such immediate access to technology. Still, though, the younger ones possessed an innocent, contented quality similar to hers. Most of these children lived in the neighborhood right around the school. Their parents worked long hours at a local factory and many didn’t have cars. They walked to school. They walked to the closest grocery store. They rarely left their neighborhood, so their world was very small. The school was 51% African American and 49% Hispanic. So, for many of the younger ones, I was the first Caucasian person they had known.
One of my favorite memories of that experience happened sitting at the cafeteria table with a 5 year-old boy during snack time one afternoon. We were conversing light-heartedly as he took large bites of his animal crackers when I suddenly heard his gasp with alarm. My eyes shot down to his face. He was horrified. After a moment, I realized that his concern and fright was directed at me…more specifically at my arm, resting palm-up on the table next to him. What is it? I asked. He couldn’t speak at first. He just waved his pointer finger quickly at my wrist. Finally he managed a breathy exclamation. Your arm! It’s blue!! I looked down at my arm. He could see my blue veins through the pale white skin on my wrist.
I tried not to smile as I explained in a gentle voice that this was normal for white people, that there was nothing wrong with me and that he didn’t need to worry. Everyone else he knew had skin the color of caramel or coffee. The poor little guy was sincerely concerned for my health. I think he expected me to call an ambulance for myself based on his discovery of some unknown blue arm disease. Amazing.
What would the world be like if we could all see it through the eyes of a child?