I have a story. It’s one of those life-event stories that we all have, that we retell a few times a year at parties. Mine happened 37 years ago. The strange thing is that each time I recall it, a different detail stands out, as if the story is trying to tell me something.
Well, the story came back to me a few weeks ago. This time I think it’s trying to teach me something about listening and being heard.
My first job was at a summer day camp. I was a junior counselor assigned to a group of five and six year olds, led by a senior counselor named Kate. One day Kate and I took the kids to a splash park. After the kids played for a few hours, Kate and I rounded them up for the subway ride home. We got off the train and headed up the escalator to catch a bus back to the community center.
Whenever we were on a field trip, Kate always walked at the front, followed by the kids in pairs, and I supervised from the back. Somehow on the escalator, Kate ended up behind five-year-old Liza, whose shoelace had become untied. The shoelace got stuck in the metal stairs. The escalator kept on moving. Liza fell forward. Her right hand got jammed in the steps and two fingers got torn right off.
I watched the entire thing over the heads of the campers. Kate grabbed Liza with one hand, tore off her sneaker with the other, and—with what seemed like another hand—picked up the severed fingers.
The escalator stopped. An ambulance appeared. Kate climbed in after the stretcher. I was alone on the platform with nine little kids staring up at me with terror and confusion.
* * *
I’m now a mom of a child the same age as those campers. But the part of the story that is most powerful this time has nothing to do with summer camp or trusting someone else with my daughter. It has everything to do with what it feels like when no one is listening.
Once we were back at the community center, I found another counselor to watch the kids. Then I went in search of Marty, the camp director to tell him what had happened. I was trembling. Now that the campers weren’t with me, I reverted to being the little kid I was.
Marty wasn’t in his office. So I just stood in the doorway and started spewing out details: “Kate went to…her hand…escalator…accident.”
But no one heard me. I thought I was yelling, but not one of the five adults sitting at the conference table turned to look at me.
It’s possible that I was just standing there with my mouth opened wide with no words coming out, but I thought I was screaming. I can still feel the frustration of trying in vain to get someone to listen to me. I felt like I had no voice and no way to make my needs known. My horror at witnessing the accident turned into helplessness, and even anger, at not being heard.
* * *
I’ve been trying to figure out why the conference room scene is stuck in my head, and why now. I’m sure it has something to do with my relationship with my daughter. I thought it might be a “I’ve been a bad listener” type lesson, or a “what my child has taught me” story. To be honest, I still don’t know the connection, but I know there must be one.
What I do know is that Cricket becomes as frustrated with not being heard as I was in the conference room that day. She’s developed strategies for expressing her feelings. She’s able to tell me when she’s sad or scared, or apprehensive about an upcoming event. She’s even asked me to tell people ahead of time that she might be “a little shy” and “please don’t make a fuss over me until I feel comfortable.” She sometimes bawls up her fist and punches her thighs when she can’t find the words to express herself. I try to be patient, just remaining silent or giving her some emotion words to help.
* * *
That day in the conference room, Marty had walked in a few seconds later, saw me standing in the doorway, and somehow got me to tell the story. After emergency procedures were enacted, he sat me down and gave me a glass of water, saying something like, “I’m sure it must have been scary for you to see the accident, and then frustrating to try to tell the story but no one would listen.” I may not remember his exact words, but I’ll always remember his empathy.
I saw Liza several weeks after her accident, while I was hanging out with my friends, enjoying the last days of summer before high school. She ran to me and jumped into my arms. She showed me her scars and told me about her surgery, wiggling her fingers as she babbled on about her new baby brother and about starting first grade.
* * *
Until I know the exact connection between this past event and my present life, I’m going to think about my communication skills: Where in my life am I not being a good listener? Can I improve on how I make my needs known? How can I show more empathy when someone trusts me with a story or problem? I think the story has done its job if this is all that comes of it.