Safe place

September 07,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I spent the past week responding to eighty-six (that's 86) letters of introduction written by students in all four sections of my freshman composition classes. I always assign the letter at the beginning of the semester, and I always enjoy reading them--diving into them with gusto at the beginning. Somewhere about halfway through reading the eighty-six papers I am ready to take a break, because eighty-six of anything can be pretty daunting. When I was done grading the letters, and writing my personal comments at the bottom of each last page, I walked around for days after, impressions of my students' lives bouncing around in my head--like snapshots jumbled in a shoebox. I sorted through them all, and thought about the impressions that surfaced above all the others. There were stories of suffering and pain, and stories of perseverance; stories of poor health and loss; failures and successes, romances gone awry; big, noisy, messy family dramas. But always--always in each letter the students write of some safe place in their lives: a grandmother's house, or family home stretched at the seams with too many people, a church, a school, a safe place; a sanctuary, a point-of-reference, a place they could always count on being there, people they could always count on, no matter what. ************** We spent the Labor Day weekend in Maryland, with my family. We go every year, to celebrate the August birthdays in my family: my brother's, my little niece's and, finally, mine--on the last day of the month. I've found, when I haven't been home in awhile, that I really need to be there. Sometimes I've been craving home, and not realizing it until I finally arrive. I'm not sure we ever outgrow that need, no matter how old we get, or how far away from home we travel. Saturday morning I took the kids for a walk down the road to the playground that belongs to the once-neighborhood school I used to go to. The school closed years ago, then became a library, then became a school again, then closed once more. But the playground is still there, in all its exciting playground glory. On the way there we snooped in the former school building's windows, and climbed the steps to the front doors. I stood there, and soaked in the familiar look of the heavy school doors, and the hallway beyond, and half-expected to see a ghost of myself from long ago disappearing around the corner, a school bag bouncing on my back. Later, at the playground, I pushed L. in the swing for almost 30 minutes, while T. practiced the monkey bars. When L. was little, I used to push him for what seemed like hours. He was most content on the swings, and preferred them over any other part of the playground. Something about swinging seems to restore equilibrium and order to his thoughts and he likes to talk, and open up to me as he swoops up and down in the air. He's been in a dark, tormented, anxious place for weeks now, and I can almost see him shedding it all, little by little, the higher the swing arcs into the sky. "I really like Grandma and Granddad's neighborhood," he said. "I wish we lived here." I pushed him higher in the swing and watched T., swinging her little body across the monkey bars. "It feels safe here," L. said. My grown-up brain thought he was talking about safety the way a grown-up brain thinks about safety. I love my parents' neighborhood--the neighborhood of my childhood, the fixed point on my compass, but I know it isn't safe in the ways our current neighborhood is, back in North Carolina. My mama thoughts flashed through images of muggings by the metro, and crime stats and other horrible, unfathomable things. So I just listened to L., and said a few grown-up type things about safety, and being safe wherever you are, and about being glad he was happy, there, in that moment. *************** Later, back at my parents' house, I sat out on the porch and listened to my kids playing with their cousins in the backyard treehouse, and it came to me: L. wasn't talking about safety the way I thought about it in my grown-up ways, he was talking about his safe place--a place that's as familiar to him as it is to me--his fixed point on his own compass. My children's lives are filled with love, their lives are good, safe, comfortable and predictable, in ways that many of my students' lives weren't and still aren't. But they still need, as all children big and small do, that other safe place where they can go, the one that runs parallel to their own busy, school-filled, homework-filled, schedule-filled lives; a place to wholly and freely just be.