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Date: SUN 08/25/96
Page: 1
Edition: 2 STAR

On love's wings, children dare to learn to 'fly'

By Melissa England

My daughter loves children. At 19, her own childhood is not that long ago. She knows about being a child, remembers the feelings involved. She talks about children, wishing some aspect of her childhood back. She has not seen a clear path to her adulthood, and she has spent some time doing office work, waitressing and substitute-teaching, pushing college into a hazy background that doesn't beckon her.

When she decides to take a position with a local YMCA's after-school and summer-camp program, the interview process is fairly intense for a minimum-wage position. She is quizzed on her interest in children, her plans for the future and her ability to follow the rules. Here are the rules:

No hugging the children. If children hug you, turn your body away from them.

No kissing. If children kiss you, tell them to save that for Mommy.

No holding the children. If children sit in your lap, stand up. Make as little physical contact as possible.

My daughter turns the paper over. It's blank. These are her only instructions.

She begins. Free play is chaos; her time is spent separating children who are beating on one another, working out their frustrations.

She is told she will need breaks. She is told she will reach a point when she will not be able to stand any child's face. The children will try to hit her, too - it's the only contact some will ever make. She knows they need direction. She needed it. She knows they need to belong, and to connect. She remembers being 4. She remembers her first day-care experience. She remembers wanting to go home. She remembers being lonely, and angry.

She takes control.

"We are going to play a game. The game is make-believe. I want you all to choose an animal. Then, when it's your turn, I want you to show me who you are."

The response is universal - "We don't want to play. . . . We don't know what to do. . . . We don't know who you are." She answers: ""I am the teacher. I will go first."

She tells them her choice is a mother eagle. She tells them why. She says she's older and stronger, and she likes that she has grown up. She is the mother, and her job is to protect her young. She says she loves the power of her wings, and she stretches her arms out in a wide, graceful motion.

The 5-year-olds are silenced and stunned. Then one small boy, T-Bone, knows what he wants to be.

"I want to be a baby eagle," he says. She studies him for a moment, then raises her arms into the air and settles them gently around him. He melts into her, leaning his head against her arm. She whispers to him: "T-Bone, my sweet baby, my job as the mother is to teach you to fly. My job is to push you out of the nest, not because I don't love you, but because I do, and learning to fly will make you very happy inside."

She opens her arms, slowly, then faster. She tells him to watch her fly, but to stay safe in the nest. She smiles and makes the sounds of an eagle in flight. Then she comes back to him; he makes himself small, the body language of asking for touch. She closes her arms around him and holds him near. He closes his eyes.

"Sweet boy, are you ready?"

No, he's sure he is not! ""Sweet boy," she says in a tender, gently prodding voice. "Remember, it's about loving you. Remember I loved you as a baby, and I will love you growing up. Are you ready?"

He leans into her harder. It's a big decision to make - he's safe in that nest; her arms are loving and protective, and he's only 5, you know.

She pulls one of his arms up. He makes a frightened noise that's not pretend. It's all right, she assures him. He tries just a little, to the squeals of delight from his classmates. He pumps up his chest and beats those small wings. She's smiling at him, encouraging him.

"Are you ready?"" she asks. He waits, then nods. She opens her arms and says, "Fly, sweet angel, fly with all your energy, fly with all your power, fly knowing just how wonderful you are."

He leaps from her, beating his arms up and down and letting out the cry of a baby eagle, taking that first big step. His classmates cheer and call his name. Then my daughter starts clapping.

"Tell him," she says to the others, "tell him how beautiful and strong he is." He flies back and throws all his weight at her. She catches him and hugs him, telling him how very proud she is that he is her baby eagle.

It's one of those moments. He's connected, cared for, content. Suddenly she has a classful of baby eagles. There is nothing else for a child to be, and each one is held in the nest, and each one is prompted to fly, and each one is reminded about being loved.

She is being supervised. The man is smiling at her. It's just a game, she tells him. He nods.

My daughter loves children; she herself is loved. Each morning is the same. They want that game. She smiles. She says that there is so much adventure, that the summer will be so much fun. She gets up early to search for the prized toys of her not-so-distant past, remembering something that reminds her of a special feeling, of some reaffirmation that everything was going to be all right. She packs it in her bag. Something else she wishes to share.

My daughter is growing up. Sometimes it is me who panics when I see her walking on the edge of the nest, as I watch her stretch her magnificent wings. It's me who holds my breath as she tests her own beliefs and moves to take a stand. My heart swells just like T-Bone's. I feel it in my chest. This child God so graciously allowed me to raise has stepped into the world to teach little ones to fly.