Small Deaths Along the Way

by Christopher de Vinck

I was walking in mid-Manhattan, on my way home from a meeting when I found myself surrounded by five children. They were nine or ten years old.

The air was humid. One of the children spoke to me directly. "Mister, what's your name?"

I didn't know what to say.

"Mister, what's your name?" he asked again. That is when I began to notice the other children. I felt little hands groping through my jacket, through my back pockets. I reached behind me and found a small palm and fingers already coiled around my wallet.

"Mister, you got a name?"

I brushed the hands away. "What are you doing?" I asked anxiously.

One of the children spit in my face, just before he and the others ran down the street and disappeared.

As I wiped my brow, I was reminded once again of how troubled their lives are when children come to believe that the world is a brutal place.

The first time I saw this lesson taught was in my freshman year in college. I read in the school newspaper that the local orphanage would accept student volunteers to help out on weekends. I decided to join four friends and see what we might be able to do.

The home, five miles from the university, was set back from the main highway. Surrounded by a rough lawn and oak trees, it was ringed by a driveway of crushed stone.

We drove up to the main building and stepped out of the car, to be greeted by a large woman in a long beige dress. Her hair was tucked under a yellow kerchief.

"The children are out back. They've just had lunch. It's their free time. Why don't you walk over and introduce yourselves?"

My friends and I walked along the crushed-stone path, passed a barn, turned the corner of the main house. The five of us stopped. At least thirty children, ranging, ranging in age from two to thirteen, were running, shouting, jumping rope, and laughing, until one by one, they saw us standing in the shadows.

All was silent.

A few children, some of the oldest, stepped toward us, then the younger children followed. A girl-she must have been eleven or twelve-reached out her hand toward me and asked, "What's your name?"

"Chris," I answered as we shook hands.

"I'm Brenda. My parents are dead."

Suddenly the ropes began to swing round and round again, the shouting and laughing returned to the courtyard. For the first half hour we college students were asked to play catch, leapfrog, mother-may-I.

The more comfortable the children felt around us, the more affectionate they were. They jumped on us, insisted we give them piggyback rides. They tickled us. After Brenda and I were the last ones left in the circle of closed hands at the conclusion of a game similar to musical chairs, she gave me one of the sincerest embraces I've ever felt.

Brenda wore blue jeans, a gray sweater. Her hair was black, curled at the ends, and tangled with oak leaves. We all laughed and laughed, until a harsh buzz emanated from the loudspeaker attached to one of the trees.

The children stood up immediately and started walking back to the main house in silence. The woman who greeted us at the main entrance held the door open for the children, then, with little grace, she stepped up to the five of us as we brushed the dirt and leaves from our hair and clothes.

"We don't allow the children to touch the guests. They will get too attached. You don't have to come here again."

She turned. I remember seeing loose hair brushing against the back of her neck from under her yellow kerchief as she walked up to the house. We were not invited back to the orphanage. I never saw Brenda again.

What has been placed between the giving heart and those in need? I felt the little hands frisking my clothes, and I was afraid. A child's hugging me in the excitement of an afternoon game turned out to be against the rules.

We need to allow our social institutions to teach children how to love and accept love; otherwise we create a world where people spit in your face and press their fingers against a harsh buzzer.

From: De Vinck, Christopher, (1994) "Songs of innocence and experience : essays in celebration of the ordinary," Viking:New York, pp. 124-126.

Other books by Christopher de Vinck:

The Power of the Powerless

His short story "Oliver" is a concise summary of this book.

Augusta and Trab

Only the Heart Knows How to Find Them

Christopher de Vinck can be contacted at: