Rose is 8 years old, and comes to school every day with a large flower pin in her hair. Her teachers and the recess staff had told me, with some concern, that all she ever wants to do is collect rocks. She gathers them from the sandpit, tiny smooth quartz pebbles, and digs them out of the side of the dirt mound with plastic spoons. She drops the small ones into a paper Dixie cup and when she finds a large one, cradles it in her palm like an egg. One time, she joined me in pretending to be a lion and helped chase another student around the basketball court, but that hasn’t yet happened again.
She doesn’t demand my time, doesn’t leap onto my back and pull my ears like some other children who want me to play with them. She doesn’t shout my name, repetitive as gunfire, until I come. She bobs up beside me to ask hopefully, do I want to look for rocks together? And if I have a child clambering over me or tugging at my clothes, she slips away. One day, I’d said ‘yes’ to Rose and then been collared by a substitute teacher I’d never met before. The sub introduced herself to me politely, then leaned in to Rose very close.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Don’t you want to play with your friends?” Rose said nothing, but shuffled behind me. The sub went away, and Rose asked if I wanted to “work on that one rock”, the one buried deep in the dirt mountain. I said yes.
There are moments in play when time elongates. Recess is only 30 minutes but that’s plenty of time to get bored with collecting rocks, and to drag one’s brain around again. I told myself, there are other adults here. They’re also watching the site, the crowd of children. I can keep one ear open but also immerse myself in this moment. This moment, whatever it might contain, is important.
Rose saves white plastic spoons in the pocket of her fleece. Some are broken down to their handles, but that makes them stronger when digging into the grass. She asked me, did I think we’d ever get this rock out? Maybe it goes to the center of the earth, I said. Rose, who has little tolerance for metaphor, smiled and said “mayyyybe, but probably not”.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “Because I have to stand here to dig”. She shifted her feet on the tilted ground, and I thought how much perseverance it must take to select a rock and return to it for weeks. She’d told me before about the collection of rocks in her house, and how she knew them individually.
“What if we sat?” I said, turning with my back up the hill and plopping down. Balance is tricky for her, so she slowly turned and sank to the grass, her heels moving up and down the slope as if seeking purchase. She smiled.
“It feels a little strange,” she said.
“It does?” She nodded.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve never sat on the grass before.” My heart stopped for a moment in shock. She kept talking, about chairs and the carpet in her classroom, about other places she has sat.
This girl, who has never sat on the grass before, spends her days digging in the earth.
The rock came free that day, shifting from within the roots of grass and then bursting out into her hand, it wasn’t the climactic moment I’d been expecting. Instead, she brushed off most of the dirt and put the rock to one side, then very carefully slipped her hand inside the hole it had left behind.
“The dirt is so soft,” she said. “But above the rock, it was hard dirt”. I touched it too, the dirt as fine as talc beneath. Above, it was hard-packed by years of children running and rolling over it. She thought for a moment.
“We could put some in a box, a box of very soft dirt. And then we could take it home.” We looked around for a little box but couldn’t find one. Instead, we found a tiny green plastic dinosaur and Rose put it gently inside the hole, and giggled.
“It’s looks funny in there,” she said. “It looks like it’s home.”