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16 June 2008

Catalog your fairies

Botanical_gardens1_2 “Tessie, you wanna go to the creek and take a class?” I asked two weeks ago. I had received a notice of a two-hour nature class for 5-7 year-olds at the Botanical Garden near our house. “YES! YES! YES!” she screamed, unsure what I was asking, but absolutely committed nonetheless. We should all be so sure.

I emailed back to reserve a spot. We showed up at 9:50 a.m. on the morning of the class and paid our fee. Tess hung close to me, the smallest in the class. “But I’m not five yet,” she whispered. “I won’t be five until tomorrow.”

Little did Tessie know that she, in fact, had already turned five a few days before, on a day when I was working in Seattle. We had decided to hold her party a few days after my return and since she is happily free from clocks, watches, calendars, and other accoutrement that impose artificiality and measurement on our days, she didn’t know.

“It’s okay, Tweetie,” I told her. “You’ll be five tomorrow. It’s fine.”

The other mothers brought their children in and left. Tess held me close. “Please don’t leave me,” she said. She takes time to acclimate, sometimes, just like me. And so I sat in the back of the room so she could turn her head and be reassured, until they got ready to leave on their “hike” through the Botanical Gardens, clipboards in hand.

They were junior scientists that morning. Their task was to note the living things they saw on their walk, as well as any signs of living things. When the group gathered to go outside, I blew a kiss to the now-sure Tess and went home for an hour or two to make preparations for the birthday party the next day.

Botanical_garden_booklet2_2 I tiptoed back in around noon. The children were finishing the books they were creating with drawings of the animals and other living things they had seen in the Botanical Gardens. Each had their clipboard next to them, their scientific notations made in a wavering hand. One young second grader’s work was especially lovely, her robin's "brest" and waterbug, goldfish and white Admiral butterfly.Botanical_gardens_water_bug_2

The teacher saw me and started apologizing in that way adults do, with “asides” above the heads of children. “Well, Tess has quite an imagination,” she started, in that way that indicates that having quite an imagination is a liability, not an asset. “She is drawing a beach. I told her we should draw what we saw, but she insisted on drawing a beach.”

“Well,” I said slowly, determined not to fall into the trap it is far too easy to fall into, that of complicity in adultism, “maybe she likes beaches. Maybe she saw a beach.” Maybe she’s five years old and doesn’t need to be held to the rigorous standards of the American Botanical Society just yet, I was thinking to myself.

The teacher stared at me. “Who knows?” I said playfully, tousling Tess’ hair, “perhaps that beach is where magic happens!” “YES! YES! YES!” she screamed. “Look! Here’s the palm tree I saw!”

The teacher blinked.

Who on earth am I to say that Tess didn’t see a beach? And why on earth does it matter if she saw a beach or not, I wondered. And what is the scientific definition of a beach, after all? She loves going to the creek in the Botanical Gardens; perhaps where water meets shore seems a beach to her.

I looked down at Tess, happily coloring a bright yellow sun over a green palm tree and blue, blue water while her older compatriots labored over spotted spiders and magnolia leaves. “I tried to tell her,” the teacher said. Perhaps she was nervous that I would object. She need not worry.

Botanical_garden_closer_2 And then I saw it, Tess’ scientific notations on the clipboard she had so seriously grasped as they left on their walk.  Turns out she had seen quite a few living things in her walk around the Botanical Gardens. There was the evidence, written in her five-year-old hand:


On the “Evidence of Living Things” page, she had joyfully circled “POOP” and put a long line of exclamation points after it. As would we all.

Years ago, Mr Brilliant was asked to appraise the book collection of a distinguished pediatrician in Washington, D.C. When he got there, it was soon clear that this tall, important man was already deep in the hold of Alzheimer’s. 

Mr Brilliant tried repeatedly to connect with the doctor who was confusing his book collection for a set of golf clubs. Finally, Mr Brilliant asked a question: “What was the most important thing you learned in your sixty years of being a doctor to children?” he asked, nearly in desperation to connect. Suddenly, the doctor straightened to his full height:  “Never interrupt a child. Let them finish. It’s the most important thing in the world to them, what they’re saying. We have to resist the temptation to finish their sentences for them.”

And with that, Mr Brilliant remembers, the doctor slumped again.

Botanical_gardens5 It was a tiny word far at the top of Tess' page that captured my attention, a word that had, no doubt, been ignored or debated by her teacher. There, very near the top margin of the page was what she really saw on that walk in the Botanical Gardens. There, smooshed right up against the top of the page was the word “fairy," in that beautiful handwriting of hers, the "i" dotted with a tiny cloud, the whole of it a mix of small and capital letters.

Forget the beach. What Tess really saw was a fairy.

And if she wrote in her quivering little hand that she saw a fairy, far be it from me to argue. I only wish I saw more fairies in my daily life. Perhaps I should try harder. Or, perhaps, maybe I shouldn’t try so hard.

37days Do it Now Challenge

Don’t be afraid to write the word “fairy” at the top of your page of scientific notations. Who’s to say you didn’t see a fairy in the garden, near the beach? And you—you there, you the teacher the mother the adult in the picture—don’t interrupt and don’t discount the vision of a child. Ever.


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What a fabulous post.
Your Tessie is an exceptional human being. :^)

Sweet, sweet story, Patti. And I love the last sentence in your post.

Isn't Tess the wee powerful woman who screamed in the joy of the sand? So, yeah, I can see water + sand = beach for her.

Yay! for keeping magic alive. Thanks for believing.

I'm so glad you could honor her unique way of seeing the world! That vision in children so often gets squashed by well-intentioned adults that have forgotten what fairies look like.

I hear strains of "The Logical Song".....

Thank you, Patti, for continuing to help me see my children as who they are. I'm trying SO HARD to remember to go play badminton with them and forget about the laundry. Your words encourage me to do so.

I hear so much about innovation and creativity in the business world. And so many form and reform their processes for creating an innovative business culture.

But isn't creativity an act of remembering ---- remembering how we were once like Tessie at the "beach" and behaving that way again as adults?

What would happen if we saw a "fairy" in our cubicle today?

Keep creating...your wildest dreams,

What a wonderful post. Tess sounds so cute! :) Urge to procreate: HIGH. ;)

I had to send this to my oldest daughter--soon to be a Mother herself...
I grew up in a family where everyone interrupted and finished your sentences and the loudest person was heard. I still struggle to not interrupt others as an adult, but I try especially hard to not do this to kids.
Your daughter is so fortunate to have a Mom who understands that all children should be free to express their creativity and what they are learning in the way the want to--not in some teacher's preconceived way or by coloring inside the lines--what a great gift you are giving her!

When we homeschooled our daughters I had a quote posted by the schooling area---
"Creativity is more important then knowledge" --Albert Einstein--
just to remind me to keep the priorities straight.

What a wonderful post and food for thought for when communicating with my own little munchkins. :) Thank you.



what a beautiful, beautiful post.

Wonderful story. I have enjoyed outings searching for fairies in gardens... or evidence of fairies.

We go to 'the beach' every time we go to our local wading pool a block away. And we always remember to bring our beach ball, too. :)

You should see The Looks I get when I let my daughter drink tea (green, white or herbal only) I bring to playgroup. Most of the moms know me well enough by now to expect it, but those that don't look at me as if I'm giving my 2 year old a beer. Like preservative filled colored goldfish is any better than herbal tea?! Please! (And yes, she does eat those, too.)

Quite the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek!

Let us know when she sees the Chariots of Fire.

You're my kind of mom. My father did something similar for me when my kindergarten teacher reported to him that I spent all my time daydreaming when the other children were paying attention to the story/music/whatever.

From the mouths and minds of babes...your daughter is wise beyond her years.

And now I'm going out in hopes of spotting a fairy :)

Hi - Leah had a link to this post of yours so I hopped on over.

This is powerful stuff... I remember being told off for putting a red sun in my sky... the teacher told me it had to be yellow! (Had she never seen one glowing redly in the mist?)... my mother said that before school I drew good representational drawings but once I went to school it all deteriorated into the expected childish style...

And I remember at the age of 7 or thereabouts saying goodbye to the fairies because I wasn't allowed to believe in them any more...

Tessie is a very lucky girl...

That is so beautifully written! Thank you for sharing this story and your beautiful child with us! :-)

Once again I had to wait for my teary eyes to dry so I could see to type. If I were still teaching school I would direct all of my parents to this post. My own children are now grown and busy but I am also busy creating a garden that is perfect for the fairies. Lily of the valley, violets - perfect fairy flowers. I plan on playing out there with my grandchildren (when and if they arrive.) Have fun searching for fairies with Tess!

Why of course the faeries are out and about now - they're preparing for the Summer Solstice, which is just a few days away.


This should be required reading for every pre-school teacher. We'd all be a lot happier if we allowed ourselves to look for the fairies that surround us. :-)

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