Here I write about non-romantic love beyond its typically expressed forms. Whereas the feeling is oft compartmentalized with the uttering of “I love ___” — you, family, friend, it, interest, hobby — I reflect on moments when it becomes broader than, indescribable by this three-word phrase. These are my thoughts on communal love and the critical responsibility to care for younger, more vulnerable lives.
Flash back to circa 2000, and I am a chubby-cheeked kid perusing the local public library’s VHS collection. Likely drawn to the familiar image of Big Bird on the dark blue cover art, I ultimately pick Sesame Street Home Video Visits the Hospital to check out and even renew it to watch multiple times; those thirty three minutes constituted the most loved movie of my early childhood.
I know the video’s exact duration because I recently found the full version online and re-watched it, yet again two decades later. The simple plot goes: Big Bird feels ill, visits the hospital, overcomes his anxiety of the new place; he even befriends other hospital-goers before recovering and returning home. My adult brain queries: why was this content so enamoring to children including younger me?
This month marks Sesame Street’s 51st anniversary, and the show’s success in both educating and entertaining its youth audience is no fluke. Co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett pioneered with a team of psychologists— their vision being public television as an accessible way for children to gain not only book smarts but also street smarts. Thanks to the show, I first learned that a triangle has three angles, a base, and a height through Muppets (aka puppets) and song; besides standard school curriculum, the producers continue considering challenges that children might face such as reporting abuse, accepting foster parents, and eating nutritiously.
I’m thankful for the adult team dedicated to appropriate children’s programming; for even without cable TV, a few clicks of the remote would reveal content not truly meant for the elementary mind. These were shows like Maury — always asking who is the father and who’s cheating whom?? — that introduced the concept of infidelity while Cops — finally airing its last episode this year in response to outrage over George Floyd’s death from police brutality— was a gross, cherry-picked portrayal of drugs/theft/law enforcement.
Of course these shows aren’t meant for children, yet of course children risk watching them once aired on public television. I myself snuck-watched these as a kid and also countless more episodes of Judge Judy and Doctor Phil. Television is really just pixels with sound behind a glass screen, but certain content can slice a child’s innocence — the gap then filled with fear and complications more akin to an oversaturated adulthood.
Thinking about everything that could infiltrate young minds/lives, my awareness grows more worldly, crescendoing to “Protect the children!” Despite my knowing only 0.00002% of the world population (numerator assumption: the count of my friends on social media) and interacting with even less in my day-to-day, I’ve grown a nagging attunement to our social and physical environment and how it might unsettle younger humans. To say that I’ve never met, seen, or heard someone but still care about their well-being — am I merely enacting common adult instinct?
This thinking at least resonates with African proverbs:
- Omwana ni wa bhone (in Kijita)
- Asiyefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu (in Swahili)
which, as highlighted in an NPR article, translate to: “regardless of a child’s biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community”. A succincter interpretation is also the more common adage: It takes a village to raise a child.
In the prior times I’ve heard this phrase, my takeaway has been that I am a “child” in a “village”; i.e. I can look up to older community members for support and guidance; i.e. I didn’t consider the reciprocal responsibility that I am an older “village” member among children. Such a limited focus is perhaps a syndrome of my being the younger sibling, the youngest in my immediate family — I am accustomed to looking up to older figures, whether they are my post-college roommates who’ve all ranged three to thirty years my senior or my more experienced work teammates.
Even at my very first job in high school — teaching children swim lessons on Saturday mornings — I viewed myself as among the younger teaching staff rather than any sort of older, parental role model. The true parents would often sit on the bleachers, watching their son or daughter bobbing on a pool noodle (swimming skills the pool staff considered level 1–2) or diving twelve feet under to retrieve a weighted toy at the pool’s bottom (level 5–6). Within each hour-long class, at least one of the level 1s would ugly cry (snot and all) for their parents to take them home or at least outside the cold pool water; as I tried to comfort these kids, their longing for a parent was reinforcement that I was not one.
I was merely an instructor repeating the same phrases that I’d learned from someone older during pre-lifeguard training (e.g. shout “Walk, don’t run!”, referee pool games with “Green light. Red light. Bubble light!”, instruct to “kick from the thighs, not the knees”). And all the while a head lifeguard on duty would sit ~6 feet above pool level, giving me the added comfort of higher guardianship than my teenage CPR/AED certification.
This mentality of being an intermediary for the true adult also trickled in the other opportunities I interacted with children — volunteer tutoring has always been under the supervision of a head teacher in the room; the time I was in high school and babysat three kids in elementary school, I spent only a few hours awake with them — I watched them jump on their trampoline or run around the backyard and scooped their post-dinner ice cream (as their parents permitted, of course) before tucking the kids into bed. I spent most of the night waiting in the living room with the parental contacts on speed dial if any concerns arose.
So when does this overdrawn narrative evolve to the moment when I feel full responsibility for a child? Unlike my original thinking, the moment isn’t exclusive to parenthood and I certainly can’t speak from first-hand experience of motherhood (let’s especially ignore the one time I as a preteen stuffed two tennis balls down my shirt in an attempt to breastfeed my stuffed koala bear). Still I have two distinct memories that, in hindsight, have helped me grow both higher self-accountability and extended love for children that Whitney Houston sings of in “Greatest Love of All”.
- The Orphaned Squirrel (2012)
During a summer jog around my neighborhood, I spotted what first looked like a lumpy gray rock on the sidewalk but actually was a weak baby squirrel. This marked my first sighting of a nestling tree rodent yet I could already tell from its emaciated body and maggot-infested ears that it was not healthy; once I confirmed these suspicions with multiple online sources, I quick-called my sister to help me transport it home (using a box and old t-shirt as a makeshift nest) until the local wildlife center opened the next day.
The squirrel most needed its health and an upbringing by its mother but instead received foster care and warmth from my sweaty, gloved human hands with a pipette of water. That night the orphan wailed for its mother with a naive desperation not unlike a human baby’s cries, and my pre-bed worries continued as nightmares culminating in jolting awake in a cold sweat. Thus that night also marked my first memory of an all-consuming sense of responsibility for a younger life.
And despite how significant of a responsibility I personally felt, the squirrel was actually cared for by so many people over two days: from my sister who picked us up from the sidewalk to my parents who allowed me to house this wild animal in the downstairs bathroom (i.e. the warmest room of the house) to the wildlife center staff who rehabilitated the squirrel until release back into the wild (as confirmed via my eager follow-up call one week later).
Omwana ni wa bhone.
2. My Little Sister (2018 to present)
I noted before that I am the “baby” of my immediate family, but I also became a Big Sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) New York City chapter. On paper, a Big-Little match is a mentorship program to promote children’s success and through it I also grew an immense appreciation for, said bluntly, adults who care.
Starting with the day of my BBBS interview, it was a snowy winter day when I took the Q then 5 train to the Financial District office; this is where I would sit for the next hour or so while the interviewer asked me a litany of personal questions with unexpectedly increasing intensity: Where did you grow up? Who are your family members? Were you disciplined? What’s your romantic history? Are you sexually active? How do you handle biases, racism? Have you ever been abused?
By the end of it, the female interviewer might have known more details of my personal life than any of my closest friends had. I also worried my application would be rejected because — post-interview and pre-departing elevator ride — I used the bathroom and saw myself in the mirror to only then realize the combination of melted snow and seldom-used mascara splattered spectacular black splotches across my under eye. How could they ever trust me adventuring NYC with a child for 4–7 hours every other weekend if I already looked so … trashy? Ultimately I was proven wrong a couple months later when I learned of my successful acceptance and matching in the program — because evidently the will to mentor children far exceeds the inability to invest in waterproof makeup.
It’s been almost two years since my last official outing with my Little (she’s eleven years old now — they grow up so fast!) but I still have a picture of us on my desk and every day think about her, how she’s doing. Through our outings, I revived certain childhood joys such as role-playing supermarket cashier at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, ceramics painting at Color Me Mine, and even redeeming tickets at Chuck E Cheese’s. I developed a keenness for planning fun yet educational kid-oriented activities and now see how this furthers the same spirit of Sesame Street’s creators.
Throughout the time with my Little in New York, I grew an intellectual commitment (e.g. I’d say to her: There’s so much we could buy in Chelsea Market but let’s do the math of what items we’d each want to get with $20; those subway riders were spewing curse words but don’t worry there are many other ways we can express our thoughts). I grew a financial commitment (e.g. I’d say to the cashier: What’s that, you’re saying ice skate rentals cost $60/hour on top of the tourist-priced meals we just had and I need to buy a $10 lock to store our bags? All right, here’s my credit card — my Little is really looking forward to this Christmastime experience). Most importantly, I grew a time and emotional commitment (e.g. I’d say to myself: If the delayed B train comes in 5 minutes and the train takes 45 minutes to arrive at the station, I’ll still be on time and not disappoint her if I sprint the remaining five blocks to her apartment). I think the clearest example of my ever-growing adult responsibility in our Big-Little relationship was once when pushing her on a swing in Harlem, a father with his own daughter at the playground thought that we were mother-daughter.
Fast forward to the end of 2018 when I got a dream job offer that happened to be across the country. I worried that the unexpected ending of our mentor-mentee pairing would be a huge disappointment for her. It was also for me one of the hardest parts of moving out of NYC, but she texted me nearly every day (via her mother’s phone) with emojis, hi’s, and quick updates on her life for the next year and a half; I’d reciprocate with similar quips. It’s been just recently — since she’s started middle school — that her texts have stopped, and I’ll scale back to sending monthly postcards/pings around major holidays. As she continues to grow within her local community of family, teachers, and friends, I am wishing her — and all of society’s youth — the very best, the most positive and loving world to thrive in.
Truly, asiyefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu.
The pandemic has both privatized the way we live — the decimation of public-transit ridership is just one indication — and globalized awareness of our actions’ consequences on others.
Amidst a very challenging year, a source of comfort is knowing that everyone can hold the dual roles of “child” as turning to others for support and “village” as offerers of it; for to express great warmth towards someone no matter their looks, talks, or parents — this is the feeling of unconditional love a baby squirrel and little sister have imparted in me.