For several years, part of the back-to-school paperwork was a questionnaire entitled “Getting to Know Your Student”, and one of the questions was “What are three words to describe your child?”. Besides being reductive and potentially subjective, this question is just HARD to answer. One year I tried to liven things up by being funny (well, I thought I was; the teachers weren’t so sure…see images below), but most years we just chose three adjectives essential to each child’s personality. The first word we chose for Liam, every single time, was “sensitive”. When he was very small, songs like “Rockabye Baby” and “You Are My Sunshine” made him sad, and as a first-time parent who hadn’t worked through a lot of my own emotional issues, my reaction was to either avoid exposing him to them or to alter them to ensure a happy ending. I changed the end of “Rockabye Baby” to this: “And down will come cradle, baby and all / but baby was fine; his fall wasn’t far; / he slept the whole time ‘neath the moon and the stars.” I added a stanza to “You Are My Sunshine”, too, to wipe away the tears borne of waking up from a dream to face reality. I know, right?! This mistake is so egregious I’m calling it an infrared flag. But what’s even worse is what I did to “Humpty Dumpty”.
As a child with pronounced anxiety and “worst-case scenario as a knee-jerk reaction” syndrome, Liam was really troubled by the Humpty Dumpty ditty. I was trying to teach him that when things broke, we could try to fix them, and I was always gluing or repairing broken toys in an effort to show him the possibility and value of reparation. Similarly, I thought I could resurrect the nursery rhyme situation by appending this couplet: “But Mommy and Daddy got out the glue / And then Humpty Dumpty was fixed: good as new!” Looking back, I want to sit down with myself and have a serious conversation. What was I thinking? I was telling my kid that if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t fix a broken egg, DON’T WORRY! Your parents will run to the rescue and solve all the problems for you! Your mommy and daddy are here to protect you from the world! We will shield you from pain, from sadness, from disappointment, from brokenness! We will carry you like an egg in the palms of our hands and keep you far from precipitous walls so there’s no chance you could fall and break! We will enshroud you in a force field of invincibility so that you shall never befall a situation that might make you feel anything but happiness and hope! I seriously had no idea that I was writing a much more damaging narrative than the preexisting nursery rhyme. All I had to do was talk it through with him, explore the situation and let him feel about it, rather than whip out a band-aid and wave away the discomfort. Sometimes sad things happen. Sometimes tragedy strikes for no comprehensible reason. Sometimes the universe deals good people a hand of really awful cards. Sometimes eggs just fall off walls. Reality is hard. The end.
However, I’ll offer two alternate additions to “Humpty Dumpty” in place of my dysfunctional one from years ago because a happy ending is something you make; it’s not something that happens to you.
“He called out for help in a fragmented breath:
‘Someone, come quickly! This can’t be my death!’
A family therapist happening by
called “Whoa” to her horse upon hearing his cry.
She handed to Humpty a fresh tube of glue,
said, ‘Here is a tool so that YOU can fix YOU!”
“It was so very sad, but when they’d all gone away,
the weather became very hot on that day
and Humpty was cooked! Right there on the ground!
The hungry townspeople–do you know what they found?
A feast of a fellow overflowing their cup:
their breakfast was Humpty: perfect sunny-side up!”
Final thought: Is Humpty Dumpty a child of Mother Goose? Did she lay him as an egg? If so, things just got more complicated.
P.S. Everyone should read the book After the Fall by Dan Santat. His idea gives the story wings.