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No child is an island

A quote from John Dos Passos from an interview in the New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1941:

“Naturally, when I write of a childhood, that is autobiography to a large extent. There’s no getting away from it.  You can be a part of many other adults, but you’ve only yourself to remember when you write of a child.”

I’m not sure I agree, because even a child can empathize strongly with another child, especially in traumatic circumstances.  I remember a playmate who was summoned to the side of the school playground at recess to be told by the principal, then and there, that her father had been hit by a train.  She was a tiny, quiet little thing, but when the news sank in, her shrieks pierced the rest of us.

I remember thinking: What if it had been my daddy?  We were only in kindergarten or maybe first grade, I don’t remember, but we were old enough to feel at least some of her pain as we stood there in shock, our recess forgotten.

Her name was Cathy or maybe Kathy. I think she moved away not long after that.  I don’t recall anything about her family or where they’d lived in our little town.  I only remember that she was sweet and gentle and seemed younger than the rest of us.  It seemed unfair that an innocent had to learn about her father’s death in such a brutal way.  My mother, when I told her the news, was furious with the principal.  “Couldn’t she have told her in private?” she asked.  “Did she have to tell her right there, in front of her friends?”  That made me ponder again what my playmate must have felt when her life was ripped in two by the news.

I still feel shaken on the inside when I remember it now, but I also see the scene from a mother’s perspective, giving it more layers of emotion.  I don’t even want to go there.

The revisions I’m working on have made me think about childhood.  A lot.  The story will include some childhood friendships, and I’m sure the child-characters will include bits and pieces of children I remember from years ago.  Bits and pieces of shared experiences and emotions, good and bad.

I understand the point that Dos Passos was making, but I would argue that adults certainly can remember childhoods not their own.  A child can put herself in the shoes of a friend and remember the experience and the emotions years later.  No child is an island.  Really.

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