Playing for keeps - Madaline Dreyfus

Playing for keeps - Madaline Dreyfus

An account of reasons for organising, and the death of a young child.

There were a couple of years where I didn't do any organising at work. I had fair reasons, too. Good reasons, even.

As a temporary employee, I had no job security. Most of my coworkers are white-collar conservative teachers with few reasons to feel invested in direct action. It’s hard to trust people in a workplace like that, and I didn't think my odds of staying around were good either. It’s true that things aren't perfect but there is rarely a reason to get too excited about problems – anyway, everyone is too busy getting through the day to make life harder than it is. Every day feels like an avalanche of little dilemmas that need attention. Lots of good reasons not to get wrapped up in something risky and complicated.

A friend of mine called the other day, asking about an article she wanted to write about organising. She said, “I hear it all the time: I can’t orgranise my job! What made you decide to start organising?” But the truth is, the reasons I started organising are not the reasons I organise now. When I started organising I was working a string of jobs as a server. I wasn't invested in the work beyond needing the paycheck, and the conditions were terrible. I always knew I would one day give it all up to teach.

I organised for pay, respect, sick time, and for the fun of it. Mostly for the fun of it. To see what I could accomplish. When I finally graduated from school and left serving to work as a teacher, I knew I could never risk the work I love so much for something so unimportant. Beyond a few conversations, I didn't bring my politics into my work, and for just over a year I let organising be something that I talked about but didn't do.

By mid-November the school year is always in full-swing. Report cards need to be finished and everyone starts practicing for the Winter concert, because it takes a good month to learn all the words to “10 Little Reindeer”. Children are excited for Christmas and the days when the snow is wet enough to build snowmen. They no longer cry when mums and dads leave for work, instead they run enthusiastically to their friends and share stories from home.

In November, the games get rougher and sneakier as the kids get old enough to learn that imaginary fun isn't always what they want to do. On supervision, I hear them call nefariously from under the slide at passing children. They keep their voices low, not intending to be heard.

“Hey! Want to play with us? We’re playing for keeps”.

“Keeps” means you don’t get your toys back. “Keeps” means someone usually cries, but quietly. Sometimes I intervene, if I think the child invited to play is unusually naive or vulnerable. But mostly I pretend I don’t hear what was never meant for my ears anyway. It’s a tough game, but it’s full of meaning. It reflects the passion the children have developed for what they boldly call “real life” – not pretend, not innocent, not always fun. For keeps.

November is a comfortable month. I had no premonition that anything was wrong when I left for work. It stunned me as I walked though the door and saw the blotchy, swollen face of my colleague. We stood staring at each other, each waiting to find our voice against the terrifying silence.

She spoke first. “One of our children died this weekend. She died in surgery.” Tears soaked the collar of her shirt and streaked her sleeves.

I didn't think any of the things they say you’ll think when you hear someone is gone. I didn't think we would soon hear they had made a mistake, or that this was an unkind joke. I knew she was gone, it seemed written in the cold morning air. The funny thing about children is, it feels like a miracle that they’re here at all. To me it felt almost rational that someone so tiny was susceptible to death, but the loss was unbearable. Inexplicable.

Our little girl was far sicker than anyone knew. She had been feeling ill on Friday at school, dizzy and disoriented, so she left class to go home with the “flu”. A concerned teacher helped her get a drink of water and walked with her to wait at the office. She took the time to reassure the little girl, and helped her to calm down. The last time Anna was conscious was in our school office. While the secretary cuddled and rocked her, she fell into a coma before her mother arrived.

Tuesday I took a call from the funeral home; could the children make something to put in her casket to say goodbye? We each made tiny pink and white paper hearts with drawings on them, beautiful things that most four-year-old girls love. One child approached my desk my desk with his heart, his face contorted grumpily and as he set it down, he said bluntly, “Anna died”.

I said gently, “I know.” Thinking he might not understand our tears, I added “That’s why we are crying, because we miss her. We love her -”

“- but we can’t see her anymore. I know that. ” He finished my sentence differently than I had intended.

“You are right. We can’t see her anymore. But it doesn't mean we don’t love her and think about her lots.”

The boy said “I’m sad now. Was she big?”

I was confused and when I asked what he meant, he said, “Anna growed up? She got big, then she died?”

It stung so much I couldn't breathe. My chest felt like it was being crushed. The little boy thought his friend had lived her whole life in the course of a weekend, and died as an elderly woman – the kind of death that seems natural and right. I tried to sound calm as I told him that Anna looked just the way we remembered her when she was at school on Friday. It was hard to think the last day of this little girl’s life was a school day.

I collected her books, her favourite brown shoes, her journal. I wrapped the paper hearts. My colleague lost her voice from crying and had to go home, devastated, while I looked after her children. At night, I comforted myself thinking that Anna’s fingerprints might still be on things she had touched.

A couple of weeks after Anna died, we got a message from her mother. She said the hardest thing about Anna’s death had been knowing she hadn't been able to make it to the school before Anna lost consciousness. She thanked the staff at our school for caring for her, and said that she was so grateful to know that Anna was loved as she left the world.

Slowly the grief became part of the rhythm of our lives and eased. One morning I woke up and made it a whole fifteen minutes before I remembered my sadness. I finished the pair of socks I started knitting for myself before she died, and put them away where I wouldn't see them. Three years have passed.

Lots of little things can happen in a Kindergarten day. Things that don’t seem to matter at all, and are forgotten in the rush of backpacks, indoor shoes, soccer practice. Toys get left behind. Parents call desperately at 6:30 “Are you still at the school? He forgot his special blanket, there’s no way he’ll sleep without it”. The current of the day carries us forward forcefully, sweeping away small concerns.

Sometimes it seems like it doesn't matter if the day doesn't go well; If we’re too overworked to stop and hug a child who is lonely or if we’re so stressed about money that we are short-tempered instead of forgiving. If paperwork means that we don’t get around to asking about someone’s day. Or if the secretary is exhausted and doesn't have time to cuddle a sick girl who is waiting for her mum.

I am organising at my job. There are good reasons not to, but there are always better reasons to do that work. We are playing for keeps.

Originally posted: June 14, 2013 at Recomposition


Juan Conatz
Sep 16 2013 05:58

This is an incredible piece of writing.

Sep 16 2013 10:02

Yeah, it's really good powerful writing. Actually I thought there were a lot of comments below it, but maybe those comments were on our Facebook rather than here…