She ran with a soft smile on her face, her footfalls quiet, her toes pointed. Every third step, she leaped off the ground, raising her hands above her head and extending her fingers with a dancer’s grace. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, her cadence seemed to be putting her in the same trance it was inducing in me.
We were both in the parents’ viewing area of a gymnastics center in Westbrook. The ground she was running on was a cold linoleum floor, and the room was thick with parents and siblings and electronic devices and boots and the debris of snacks. She looked, though, like she was running in a field of tulips under a warm sun after learning her father was returning home from an overseas war.
She looked blissful, and it was a bliss of her own, pure creation. Bare feet. A little space to herself. Lost in her own thoughts.
I realized that I was on the verge of tears. For an avowed cynic, sentimentality gets the better of me more often than is predictable. I once cried after witnessing a football pass I considered both well-executed and brave. But crying because of how a young girl I did not know was trying to kill time was a little much.
Or so the cynic in me said.
The sentimentalist fought back, though. This girl had short hair that looked as though she had cut it herself. Where the other girls wore leotards in a rainbow of pastels, ornamented with bows and glitter, she wore running shorts and an over-sized t-shirt. When she got dressed to leave, she tucked her long feet into faded brown boots with no laces.
She was not who you would typecast, not the image you’d have as you wrote of a reverie. A linoleum floor is not what you would typically picture as the stage for an emotional twirl de force. But this girl was making her moment. Where I saw limitations and gray, she saw space and color. And she was happy.
The weekend before, I sat in this same waiting room feeling very sorry for myself. I was tired after a long week at work. I was convinced everyone else had “it” figured out, and that I was the flesh-and-blood embodiment of a misstep. My surroundings only made me feel more caved in.
Now, here I was feeling inspired by a tile-leaping demonstration. Here I was feeling silly for my earlier pouting, but gratefully so. Here I was being reminded of my most sincere hope for my children: happiness.
My children will never have the best toys, be enrolled in the most activities, or wear the cutest clothes. They will not go on fancy family vacations, or celebrate their half-birthdays. They will be sent to time-out in public, and they will have curfews.
I suspect that if they want to, they will be able to find ways they feel left behind, or a little different, or not quite cool.
On the other hand, I do not care how well they can kick or throw a ball. I do not care how quickly they learn their multiplication tables. I do not care how many play-dates they attend.
I care that they learn to be happy, that they practice happiness every day, that they study happiness with dedication and determination. I care that they have the sense of self and the sense of confidence to understand that happiness is something we initiate for ourselves, not something we wait to be given. I care that they protect their happiness against the threats of competition and judgment.
I suspect that will be a harder skill to reinforce than any athletic drill or classroom assignment. But I will carry the image of the little leaping lady in my head, and I will teach to that.
For despite all that I do not give them, and all that I do, I hope they can walk into any room and find their space in it. I hope they can always find their smile, and that their smile makes them leap, even if it is only inside.