I was mortified. I had been called from the audience of children and parents, and standing right next to me as I sat on the stage was a skeleton puppet. Leering and jeering, he taunted me as he danced around, rattling his bones and clacking his teeth. The worst part was that he kept asking me for a kiss! I had no idea what to do, and I recoiled in horror each time he approached and shook and rattled his bones at me.
The summer before my dad passed away, my family took a memorable vacation to Florida. I was nine years old. We had traveled by train to visit relatives, and went to the beach, Disney World, and Sea World. On that particular day, we were at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota.
At first I had been excited—had felt brave, even—to be called to the stage as a volunteer. I left my seat and walked confidently to the front of the room. All of the other children before me had interacted with happy, fun puppets like giraffes and bunnies, and I was sure I would, too. Things had definitely taken a turn for the worse, though, and I found myself all alone up on stage with a creepy skeleton puppet.
Feeling panicky, I looked into the audience and desperately searched for my mother. She was motioning frantically from her seat for me to do something. Over and over she kissed the tips of her fingers, then patted the air in front of her in a gesture that made no sense to me. After seeing my look of bewilderment, she slowed the movements down and made them more exaggerated. Suddenly, it dawned on me and I knew just what to do: I kissed my fingertips just like she had pantomimed, and quickly patted the skeleton on its boney, white skull. The second my fingertips brushed its forehead, the puppeteer pulled the strings and the skeleton flew apart in a hundred different directions. The crowd shrieked with surprise and delight, while I sighed with relief. I looked shyly out into the audience at my mother, who was beaming proudly up at me.
Even though I was frustrated that I did not understand what I was supposed to do that summer day so long ago, Mom kept patiently modeling for me until I understood. She could have rushed to rescue me from that appalling puppet, but instead she chose to cheer me on from the sidelines, offering her guidance and support. At the time I wanted her to come to my rescue, but now I am grateful that she let me struggle to find my wings and waited to see if I took flight.
Today, as a parent and even as a teacher, it is sometimes difficult for me to let my children and students go it alone. But I know I must model and redirect, with the goal of teaching independence, waiting for them to find an air current of understanding. I see how easily my mother could have held on too tightly to me as I grew up, especially after we lost my father. And I’m so glad she wisely chose to let me soar.