The photos are black and white, and they bring back my days of motherhood and managing little boys in after school soccer, or trumpet lessons, or — God help me — a birthday party at Knott’s Berry Farm, complete with extravagant rides.
The memories come when I pick up the book with its pictures of young boys who are embarrassed, bored or distracted, as if they wished they were somewhere else — throwing stones into a pond, maybe.
I’m standing in a bookstore, maybe the Peregrine before the pandemic, holding a book of photos featuring four nine-year-olds who are about to take an after-school class in child care. Child care! That’s enough to cause me to turn the pages.
The boys’ faces are typically freckled, or dirty; their clothes are typically messy, an untied shoe, a stained t-shirt. I’ve no idea what inspired their venture into this child-care territory. Perhaps they needed a badge for Scouts or their mothers insisted they attend. The lure could be a promise for easy money in babysitting jobs. They don’t look like they’ve been forced to take the class, but it does seem they would have preferred to be anywhere else.
I turn the page and see the youngsters wandering around a classroom. They appear restless as they touch the tables, the chairs, a sink, books in a stack, shelves of glue and paper — the materials of a humble elementary schoolroom, with tiny plants on a sill, a cage on a shelf, scattered desks.
The boys seem to want to punch each other, laugh. Mostly they look anxious about what will happen when they must submit to a child-care class, worried they’ll be teased by other boys. Suspense is in their eyes, even fear. I can hear their protests to their mothers last night: I changed my mind! I forgot I have baseball! I think I have a cough!
I wonder who took the pictures of the nervous kids, their anxious faces. Who would think to hang around four boys anticipating a childcare class? It doesn’t matter, of course, except that the photographer captured a wonderful scene, and it gets you thinking about who that photographer might have been. Maybe a parent with a sense of humor went back to the car and returned with a camera, staying unobtrusively in a shaded corner to watch. The teacher may have alerted this parent that there’d be something wonderful to capture in the next minutes.
I can’t imagine what the boys might have been expecting. Probably a lecture about safety rules, like 'don’t let babies play around water;' 'don’t leave babies alone;' 'don’t let babies put their fingers into wall sockets.' Whatever they look forward to, the boys don’t get what they expect.
On the next page I see startled faces asn the door opens and into the classroom come three mothers carrying babies. The boys’ astonishment is breathtaking, as if they’d been visited by Harry Potter waving a magic wand. Then they look pleased, excited, even thrilled. They’re presented with objects so foreign they must be flammable, or breakable — certainly unpredictable. Best of all, they’re being entrusted with real, living beings. The photos that follow, of the boys learning to care for the babies, are captioned with their words:
“Oh boy! Babies!” “You know, it’s much easier to wash a baby than a dog.” “I’ve always loved babies. I think they’re the smallest, most cutest things you can have.” “I was never scared about the babies. I was just really happy.”
There’s a photo-moment at the changing table, another of a boy putting a sweater on an infant; another of a stalwart lad lifting a baby into a stroller. The pictures of the boys testing the heat of bottles — and washing little squirmy bodies — show an intensity of commitment. On the sidelines, the babies’mothers watch with the same awe I feel looking at the photographs.
Who knew fourth-grade boys would feel such delight in learning to care for babies? We think nine-year-olds cannot be charmed like this, that they want only to play their games, fight, or harass little girls. I’m lifted away from dark thoughts of the crude and brutal side of life. The photos offer reminders that not all young boys will be recruited to be child soldiers in the jungles of Sri Lanka or Darfur. Nor would they become active shooters in a kindergarten class. Some young men can be caretakers of the vulnerable among us.
I like to think of myself as wise, not given to idealist ramblings, but I’ll say here I think if young men have held in their arms a living baby and can learn of the innocence and the helpless needs of a tiny human being, they’ll never be persuaded to become suicide bombers. The seduction of fanaticism loses its power when we’ve felt the warmth of a small beating heart next to ours.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local teacher and editor. Read more at ElaineGreensmith-Jordan. Com.