The little boy was no older than four. He sat next to his father on a bench in the mall. His father, an earnest hipster around 30 years old, sported the uniform of beard, slightly-too-small trilby, and large-screen phone, on which he tapped rapidly and with great concentration. A cup from Starbucks was next to him. No cup for the boy.
The little boy sat next to him, fidgeting. He would steal glances at his father, who was busy. The boy had no book, no toy, no electronic device. He swung his feet and watched people passing. I sat down on the long stone bench next to him.
He looked at me with curious eyes. I grinned at him. Winked. He blinked both eyes back and smiled. “Shopping with Dad?” I asked. The boy nodded. His father glanced at me for less than a second, his fingers never stopping their tapping on the screen. Judging me to be non-threatening, he returned his full attention to texting. I was interested in this small, curious child who was observing the world without any explanation or attention from an adult.
“Have you ever had a dream about elephants?” I asked, by way of engaging the boy. He nodded solemnly, paused, and said, “They were stripey.” It didn’t matter to me if he was confusing zebras with elephants; I wanted him to feel, for just a minute or so, that someone was paying attention just to him. “In the dream, what did you say to them?”
Tumbling out of his mouth came a completely wonderful, disjointed story, mixed in with the names of friends, or maybe family, or maybe just made-up people, about a striped elephant (“with a long handnose”) who had a butterfly for a friend. In parts of the story, the butterfly was also a helicopter or airplane. Buzz Lightyear was also in the plot, as well as some names I didn’t understand. It didn’t matter to the boy. When he would slow down, I’d ask a question and he would re-start. The plot scattered in six different directions, some plot lines disappearing as he had a better idea or followed one that was momentarily more interesting.
When he was done, or at least out of breath, I asked where the elephant lived. In his closet. I asked what other happy animals lived in the closet, and another short story tumbled out of his imagination.
The exchange took maybe four minutes. The boy’s father never looked up. Sure, I remember those days when a break from the endless babble of a four-year old was welcome. But I wonder how often Dad took a break from the endless babble of friends bubbling up in texts of different colors.
I’m not interested in correcting the parenting of texting Dads. I am interested in the wonderful and lively ability of children to tell stories of huge imagination, characters and tangled plots. All of which make sense to them, and help them make sense of a world that is, at the moment, not all that separate from the one in their imagination. And for a second, I mourned the fading of that world. In another year or so, he will have an electronic attention-sucker machine put into his hands, and the magic of story-telling will fade, then vanish.
I said goodbye, smiled again, suppressed the urge to hug the boy, and wandered down the busy mall, carrying along with me the story of a stripey elephant and his friends.
—Quinn McDonald teaches adults how to remember and capture the stories they have forgotten.