we are so much more than just what we are today

Posted: February 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” he smiled, and proceeded to tell me a piece from his life before I knew him, about one of his proudest achievements – something maybe no one here has ever heard.

I love when those things open up.  Like when I’m helping prepare a bulletin for our “Friendship Manor Chorus” at work and I write the little 1-line biographies of each member of the chorus…and am undone to learn some of the amazing things these people have done.  Why is that learning an old person hasn’t always been an old person is generally such a shocking thing?  Or is that only ME that processes it that way?

With my several rounds of “starting completely over” in the past few years, I’ve become quite familiar with that phenomenon.  It is disorienting, getting to know new people who never knew the Karen I was before.  Who just see what I appear to be today…and I see that as such an incomplete picture!

The first that I bumped into that hard was when I arrived at JPUSA in 2010.  Suddenly, NO ONE knew me as the lady who worked with kids.  I had done licensed daycare in my home from 1990 to 2003.  Had led youth groups and Sunday school classes and children’s church sessions to varying degrees from 1995 to 20010.  I raised babies, taught toddlers their ABC’s and 123’s and colors and shapes in my living room.  I led field trips and camping expeditions and shopping days.  I chaperoned lock-ins and bus trips.  I worked as a substitute teacher, as a tutor, as a one-on-one aide.  I was the front desk lady at the Y who kept the “Y rats” in order.  I filled up all the extra space in my house with extra “children of my heart,” some of whom just flat out moved in with us, and some of whom spent enough time there that they might as well have made mine their official address.

Kids were my whole life for about 20 years.  Often in that time period, I struggled with how to relate to people my own age, but NEVER had I struggled like that with kids.  Kids were easy for me.  It was natural.  I knew how to get right with them, at their level, and I loved it.

Because I lived in a very rural area where everyone knows everyone else, I had an assumed level of trust most any time I worked with kids.  I was an expected factor.  Some knew me as practically a family member.  Others knew me as an ally in a mostly hostile-to-them world.  Others enjoyed me as an overgrown teenager with a rebel attitude and a tendency to more or less plant my foot in their butt and shove them toward unexpected perspectives.  Some just knew me as a mean, bossy lady – but not really one to be viewed with any particular fear or skepticism.  Not as any kind of “other” or “outsider.”

On this point, arriving in Chicago was disorienting.  The kids at JPUSA lived in stable families and had a great support system of teachers and leaders already in place.  No one was looking to add me to that mix.  I was just another in a continual flow of faces that would appear in their world, and everyone knew that while some might stay, many leave.  The kids there had no reason to want to know me better, and I didn’t want to be the creepy new lady bugging them.

The shelter kids weren’t looking to me as “the kids lady” either.  I was a caseworker who managed their moms – helped them, cajoled, managed amidst controversies, issued directives to them, and occasionally kicked them out altogether.  Sure, I was friendly to the kids, and lots of them liked to goof with me at my desk…but it was very clear that my focus in being there was not to work with them.  We had daycare workers for that.

On one hand, the difference was hard.  Oh, occasionally, I had a few fun minutes cracking up in the elevator as a kid would ramp up into uber-hyper mode, or I’d get to sit at a supper table where someone’s toddler was enjoying a meal.  Maybe I’d make it downstairs to breakfast amidst the rush and mayhem and organized chaos of the kids loading up to leave for school – that always split my smile into an ear-to-ear proposition.  But mostly I didn’t even register on the kids’ radar, and that never stopped feeling strange to me.

On the other hand, it was liberating.  I got to explore the question of, “who is Karen, separate from ‘her’ kids?”  Without the crutch of always retreating from the adults to goof with the kids, I was forced to grow in how I related to the adults around me.

In the end, it was a confidence builder for me.  Sometimes we don’t begin to see the chance to grow in an area until we’ve been ripped out of our comfort zone in another area.  I really love my life as it is now.  I wouldn’t have guessed I could be this happy without working daily with kids.  It’s a beautiful thing to discover that my joy is not wrapped up in my circumstances forever remaining what I expected them to be.

Still, it’s a strange thing for me whenever I realize that someone I feel I know pretty well…has never, ever seen me as “Karen who works with kids.”  It seems like they are missing a crucial part of who I am.

I wonder how many senior citizens walk around feeling like that all the time.  “You only see me as the old person you can see now.  If only you knew the many me’s that I have been over all these long years.”

Just makes me want to ask more questions and listen to more stories.

How about you?


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