Lisa See Special Podcast - Off-Ramp, Feb. 7, 2012

5th graders know what love is, tell commentator Hank Rosenfeld

John Rabe

Off-Ramp commentator Hank Rosenfeld.

To me, love is stubbing out a menthol cigarette in a cup of coffee, an empty bottle of whiskey by the side of the road, a shuttered motel in 29 Palms. That’s why I loved my job at a Santa Monica elementary school. The 5th graders there kept me sane when Valentine’s Day approaches. They don’t have those kind of memories … yet.

I ask Krshna, "What’s your definition of love?" Without blinking, he says, "The definition of love is me liking Sophie." Not "a" definition or "one" definition, but "the definition." It’s crystal clear.

5th graders have lots of crushes. Not that they are all as willing as Krshna to talk about them. And of course they’re too young to understand what Strindberg called "the inevitably primal confrontation between men and women." They’re too busy playing. They’re 10 or 11 years old, running around with their shoes untied. And my job is to help them with their poems that go, "Love is like a hot fudge sundae."

When Amy tells me quietly, "Love is a strong thing. It’s when two people really care about each other," I think of that quote about love from Martin Buber. He called it "a vague instinctual overwhelming feeling."

If the girls are a little quieter, the boys who want to talk really want to talk. Noah and Vincent grab the mike and basically start doing a radio show.

Noah: Valentines isn’t about who’s the coolest, the hottest. It’s about who you love, right, Vincent?

Vincent: Right. You have to spend time with your girlfriend or your loved ones and you have to just realize how beautiful Valentine’s is.

Noah: I mean if you don't have Valentine’s Day, if you’re married, how will you ever say to that special person “I love you?”

Wasn’t it Blake who said, "we’re all here to bear the beams of love?" That may seem a bit above the pay grade of an average adult, but children send out those beams without even trying. Krshna, before he went back to class, left me with this. "Love is a real right thing and I think everyone needs love to feel happy and stuff like that. And I hope Sophie becomes my girlfriend, and I hope you find love Mr. Hank."

O Krshna, I don't think there’s anything in that grab bag for Mr Hank. I was in one relationship for six years. We used to break up every Valentine’s Day. We’d get back together around Easter or Passover; something to do with resurrection, or guilt.

But the 5th graders are studying the circulatory system right now, and in the standard California science book, it says that the heart is actually hollow. But when it gets to beating and rhythmically pumping the blood around the body, well, it feels alive.


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