Baba the Storyteller playing his Kora and telling tales to elementary students in CaliforniaI’m not sure I can do this any longer. There are painful moments in this work that few people ever get to see.

While at a school yesterday, following extreme COVID protocols, I had one of those heart-wrenching, crossroads moments that we all experience in life.

Part of the lesson and the stories I employed for the day dealt with the theme of “opening our hearts to care for others,” and, of course, I leaned heavily into this issue of the pandemic.

I have to admit there were a few moments when I was awash with a bit of sadness over the last years’ experiences. I tried to focus on my work and not project this sadness out onto the students I was working with, but, as many of you know, most children are highly empathic.

I finished a session with a group of 4th graders and the entire class went toward the hall to line up. One little girl stayed behind and stood before me at the required six feet of distance. I looked over at her teacher and received an affirmative nod that it was alright for the child to take a few moments with me.

It was when I looked into the little girl’s eyes that my heart sank, noticing how swollen and red they were, welling up with tears.

I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I understood your story, and I understand what you want us to do.” 

She spoke with such maturity through her pain it forced me to be hyper-focused on the moment. I had tunnel vision, seeing only this child’s crying eyes, feeling her pain.

I told her I appreciated that she understood, but was more concerned with why she was crying. I asked her again what was wrong.

This is when she told me that her grandfather had recently died of Covid.

Cautiously, she moved a step toward me.

I, too, am a grandfather. As I’m writing this, my throat is filling with sorrow and my chest is tightening.

I think this little 4th grader sensed the depth of my compassion for her loss because she inched a little closer in my direction.

“You need a hug?” I asked her.

She nodded an emphatic yes.

I held my arms out wide and she rushed into them, sobbing. I held her as I have held my own granddaughter thousands of times.
While we embraced, I spoke to her about the importance of memory and sharing thoughts even when it is difficult, or you don’t feel like it. Our embrace wasn’t long but felt timeless. It was as healing for me as I felt it might have been for her.

She had an evolving smile on her face as we let go of one another.

Wiping her eyes, she said thank you and raced to go join her class.

I’m not sure I can do this anymore. I know that I was not supposed to hug that child. I know that Covid protocols demand that we maintain safe distances, but how could I have refused the need of that moment?

I know publishing this, I’m opening myself up to the critics who will berate me for my actions. I am not going to lie; I believe I may be deserving of many of their critiques. I had to go home and tell my wife about this, which was difficult because we consistently talk about keeping one another safe, our family safe.

I don’t know any other way to be a human being. For this reason, I may have to remain virtual in most of my future presentations and performances.

I’m still processing. Thank you for being a part of my experience, my journey.




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