Her little fingers fumbled with a sheet of yellow construction paper. An over-sized white camp T-shirt hung down over her ruffled skirt. Her bright pink sneakers matched the headband in her jet-black hair.
Inside the activities room, nineteen other kids, ages five to twelve, sat at tables scattered with sheets of colored paper. A middle-aged Chinese American woman demonstrated how to fold paper into origami flowers. I was learning, too, and having a hard time of it.
When I answered the call last spring for volunteers at a Chinese Culture Camp, I imaged a fun-filled week with little children, maybe something like the days when my boys were small. Instead, it turned into quite the unexpected challenge. The arts and crafts were so complicated, I felt inept from the start. The only thing I was good at was untangling yo-yo strings and handing out snacks.
I work best when I have explicit instructions. Do A, then B. “Help them with this” was not remotely clear enough for me, and that was all the training I got. The first morning, I wanted to go home. I thought of saying I was sick and had to leave. The second day, all morning, I practiced another excuse: I forgot, there is somewhere else I have to be! But I couldn’t find the right time to say it.
The third day, the children sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese, complete with hand signs, and I was hooked. I wanted to be with them, to bask in the joy on their openly eager faces. At snack time, I put out bags of pretzels, helped little hands peel oranges and passed out water bottles.
Still, no day was easy for me. And origami made me feel just plain stupid. Although I concentrated on the teacher’s flying fingers, my folds all went in the wrong directions. I followed her from table to table, watching her turn ordinary construction paper into beautiful flowers. But try as I might, I just couldn’t do it. I felt a tug at my shirt.
“Can you help me?” The little girl with the pink headband asked. Uh oh.
Do not fail this child, I thought to myself. Breathe and focus. I picked up a sheet of bright red and working slowly so she should follow, carefully turned my precise folds of paper into… a crumpled ball. She threw her own paper down on the table.
“I want to go home!” she said with a frown. Me too, I thought. But I was one of the grownups, the people who are supposed to know how to do things. My face felt hot.
“Can I make something else?” she said.
“Of course,” I said with authority, my grownup shoulders relaxing. “You can make anything you want.”
“I need scissors,” she said. I could help with that. She took them from my hand, snipped here and there at her folded paper, and opened it, triumphant, to display a lacy pattern of holes.
“Can I hang it up?” The walls and windows were already plastered with coloring pages and paper snowflakes autographed in crayon.
“Yes, you can.” Her little shoulders wriggled. “But put your name on it first.”
“I need some tape,” she said. I could help with that, too. I held the chair steady as she climbed up and taped her work as high in the window as her little arms could reach. Sunlight poured through the holes of her design.
“Beautiful,” I said. She smiled back at me. I believe she thought I meant the paper.
Have you ever wanted to just quit and, as my mother used to say, “Pick up your marbles and go home?” Did you leave or did you stay?