Friday, September 27, 2013

andrea selkirk

andrea selkirk would have turned fifty this year.

in the years right after andrea died, her mom, who worked at our school, seemed to me very much like she would like to go on with her life and the business of mourning privately and not have to keep being the public face of the dead girl's mother.

i probably couldn't have said the thing i want to say until it was many years later.

not properly, at any rate.

but i have always wanted to tell her some things, things i think she would want to know, things that are not a surprise, things that will not take away the sorrow, but things i think she might want to know nonetheless.

i don't know where mrs. selkirk is now, or mr. selkirk for that matter. i only knew mrs. selkirk and while this thing i want to say is for her, it's also for him, and anyone who loved and remembers andrea.

maybe you know them; maybe you know where they are. maybe you are in a position to pass the message along.

i was a spindly, gangly kid, uncoordinated and clueless about how to throw a ball or when to run or even WHY and in my adult years i have learned that i am just not naturally athletic. other kids (grownups, now) have some sort of instinct about these things, and people can teach them.

i enjoy sports, or at least sporting activities. where my friends just get on their bikes and ride, i have to think about everything: position of my pedal, shift properly, weight back, lift front wheel, keep momentum, over the obstacle, rebalance weight.

i have to THINK about every part of every sporting activity. i have no natural sense of it. so while i like to play with the other kids (read, now, middle aged people), only a great deal of thinking and training and attention can allow me to keep up with them on a slow day.

it's not really a complaint, but more of an observation. i'm good at other things, and naturally good at some.

but do you remember when you were a kid and all the kids in the neighborhood would get together and play games? catch and kickball and games that maybe don't even have names? i wanted to play with the other kids, and i tried my best, but i was too clumsy, too awkward, and nobody even had an idea how to help me improve if they'd wanted to.

i was the last kid picked for everything, even when little kids were playing. sometimes i wan't even allowed to play. while it stings to be picked last, it REALLY stings to be standing there and not picked at all, invisible and outcast.

andrea selkirk was a golden girl. every ball she kicked went right where she meant it to. you couldn't outrun her, not if you had a minute headstart and a note telling you where she was going. andrea selkirk was not just good on the street. she was special.

she was special and she was gifted and she knew it.

but unlike the way in which many kids carry this kind of knowledge, andrea carried her gifts like a responsibilty to the world.

when andrea was on the street, everybody got to play, even me. she had enough juice in the social order to enforce fairness and kindness in the world of children's street games.

she had the grace to treat each and every last one of us kindly, to notice the weak and the unpopular, to speak our names and let us in on the camaraderie that the rest of the kids enjoyed. she didn't so much exert this force on the other kids as she quietly lived it.

andrea could sit down on the curb next to you to tie her shoe and by her choice of location, confer upon you a safety from the common cruelties of children.

her decency in streetcorner games was so persistent that even if she wasn't there, the culture of the corner was just that much kinder for a few days after she had come to play.

andrea didn't live on our block, so she wasn't a daily fixture.

but she made a difference.

she made a difference to me in my childhood and she made a difference to me in my teen years. she made a difference to me when i was working as a schoolteacher, and she makes a difference to me now when i am out at some sporting event that i love but i'm not very good at.

she was the first person to teach me that i could have fun in sports i'm not good at. she was the first kid to really show what it could be like to welcome everybody onto the field.

i took her as an inspiration and an example and my life is different and the lives of people around me are different because andrea selkirk was there a long time ago.

by the time i got to high school, andrea had already been killed by some mysterious wasting disease that i did not understand. they put up a plaque to her in the school library. it wasn't a really fitting tribute because it was static and andrea was about movement. it is unlikely that the people who go by that plaque remember her.

but she was special and golden and i remember her sitting on the curb in her army-green shorts and her high-top sneakers, casually tying a shoe and talking with you and then going on to make the most amazing catch you had ever seen.

andrea selkirk didn't live long enough to make of herself whatever really amazing woman she was going to be. she was smart and compassionate and she had real talents and she would have, i'm sure, done some important things.

and yet, cut short as her life was, she did manage to do important things. i'm going to be 49 years old this year, and i have not forgotten her examples. i doubt very much that i am the only kid who learned a thing or two from andrea. i believe that some of us will have taken those lessons and examples we got from andrea and we will have passed them on. ripples spread. the movement of them is visible at the shore long after the skipping stone has disappeared from sight.

and that's what i want to tell andrea's mom. i doubt very much she would remember who i am, just a kid from a nearby street.

your daughter, mr. and mrs. selkirk, is not forgotten. she left a legacy of a little more kindness and decency in a sometimes hostile world.

so if any of you know the selkirks, i would appreciate it very much if you would pass this message on.

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