Youth is fleeting even in snow boots

The other day I was visiting the Lincoln Community School, the town’s elementary school, and I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I helped a little boy who was trapped in his snowsuit like the Michelin Man — just imagine that character made of tires trying to move — climb into his snow boots and get his snow pants fastened around his ankles.
Forget for a moment the disturbing reality that this was a morning well into the second third of April and there was still so much snow left on the ground that the children actually had need of their snowsuits. Focus instead on your own memories of the times this winter when you helped your own children and grandchildren climb into their snowsuits or the times in winters past when you did.
It has been a very long time since my daughter needed help climbing into a snowsuit. Moreover, since she is now a 13-year-old who will always sacrifice comfort for fashion, there has to be a raging blizzard outside before she will wear anything to school on her feet other than sneakers or (if it is merely sleeting, hailing or the air is filled with flying locusts) ballet flats without socks.
But that morning at the school I was surprised by what an oddly satisfying experience it is to help a child get ready for snow. Oh, it might be one of those routines that morphs quickly from ritual to chore. The fact that I had forgotten how nurturing the moment is might be an indication that once you have wedged a small foot into a small boot for the 10th time in a week, the thrill disappears and you are left only with the smell of a sweaty sock.
Still, my daughter has been out of elementary school for nearly two years now, and my return to her old school left me feeling both wistful and old. Elementary schools are pretty magical little worlds — and little is the correct word, especially when you are a grownup sitting in one of those miniature chairs that press your knees into your chest. But they are indeed fantastical, in part because the kids haven’t yet figured out that we adults really are making it up as we go along and most of our answers are ad-libbed. Moreover, almost everything about the world is new and unexpected, and anything is still possible.
To wit: When I was there, the art teacher, Nancy McClaran, was pinning to a wall one class’ interpretations of the Mona Lisa, and it was evident that few of the kids were trying to replicate Da Vinci: Instead they were stretching and rounding and interpreting the painting in the phantasmagoric ways that kids will who haven’t yet begun to feel any pressure from parents and peers to color only within the lines, (or, perhaps, to shade only within the ovals of a standardized test). On another wall were the color photos from the school’s recent production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” The play was mounted by the combined fifth- and sixth-grade classes, and the photos of the kids in their costumes conveyed both the actors’ incredible earnestness and the simple joy that children — especially girls — get from playing dress-up.
And, of course, there was the tremendous enthusiasm for building an Abenaki village out of clay, or donning a backpack and wandering into the woods with teacher Anna Howell, or writing a short story in which you can be completely oblivious to cause and effect and the laws of the universe because you happen to be only 7 years old.
Sometimes I worry that children grow up too fast. And then I realize this: It’s not merely the children’s youth that I mourn. It’s mine.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 29, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.