I learned how to tell the time in elementary school, a skill that I practice multiple times every single day. Other lessons I use less frequently but still cheerfully: I sing the alphabet under my breath while searching the library stacks and recite a rhyme to figure out how many days are in certain months. And I could never forget my old friend Roy G. Biv for naming the colors of the rainbow!
But most of what I learned was, as the great Mister Rogers put it, “caught, not taught,” referring to what was modeled for me by teachers, staff and fellow students. There is one moment that stands out in my mind like the bright full moon above this morning’s horizon.
Fifth grade, spring semester. When walking to recess with the rest of the class, a boy held hands with a girl. One moment, they were just strolling along like the rest of us, the next he reached for her hand, and she reached for his. I saw this happen mere feet in front of me and the moment they touched sent shock waves up my spine! We were no longer merely heading to play basketball but into the great unknown — a thrilling and terrifying future that would include proms, tuxedos and boutonnières. Stomach butterflies, first kisses and broken hearts. Yes, the journey from childhood through adolescence was still a long, winding road with countless steps and missteps, not to mention awkward moments.
But something changed right there at that moment in the hallway.
There’s something of that moment that I wish to catch and hold even now, thirty years later. Something bigger and more sacred than any idealized notion of romance or childhood or innocence. Something about how people of any age can reach for each other in reciprocal, life-giving ways.
I’ve learned how “manipulate” is derived from the Latin for hand. I’ve seen enough of the ways that adults use their bodies and words to coerce, pressure, intimidate and belittle. Such abuse is also caught, not taught — replicated in families and family systems, including communities of worship. It’s hard, painful and holy to name these abuses and work for reconciliation with the truth held firmly before us.
Yet, our hands are also capable of language beyond words. We say more with a hand on someone’s shoulder than any sermon. Our hands are like stars, and we give light with each gentle, caring touch. I saw one such shimmer that afternoon in the fifth-grade hallway. He reached for her hand; she reached for him, and together they skipped down the hall toward the bright day that streamed through the open doors.