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She was a breathing fire dragon. Rooted in her sense of deep empathy and understanding.
She came running towards me, her back towards the boy she had just screamed at for pulling another girl’s hair. Her little face shining with anger, exhilaration, and pride at what she had just accomplished.
A face, which since the last 5 years, has never failed to stir a complex mixture of emotions within me. A face, which took more after her father than me — the same sharp chin, wide forehead, and upturned nose. But the look; the look in her eyes was mine. A blazing sort of look, like flames leaping off a fire.
The day she uttered her first words, I knew she was a force to reckon with. Her first word was not ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ or ‘cat’. It was just one succinct, clear word in response to seeing our mailman kick a dog that was in his path.
At playschool, little girls would bring their dolls and play ‘house’ with each other. Occasionally, a poor little boy would be dragged into these games too. But she? No, she would just give them a cursory glance, flash a cheeky grin, and scamper off.
The word soon reached my ears that her teachers would end up finding her in the woods behind the school, covered in mud from head to toe, sporting bloody bruises on her tiny knees and struggling to carry some animal or insect she wanted to help — an injured bird, a tired cat or even a caterpillar that she had seen in distress.
She had no patience for bullies. If a kid would come up and to try and push or tease her, she would squarely face them, standing her ground with her chubby arms crossed. Daring them with her eyes. ‘Come on, just try it’.
It wouldn’t stop there. If any child was aggressive against any other child in the class, she was the first to spring to the victim’s defense.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard complaints of her getting into fistfights. I tried to impress upon her the importance of using words, not fists to solve a conflict. She listened to me, her big eyes solemn. And nodded her head, keeping a hand on top of mine to show that she understood. Honestly, it used to unnerve me a bit; the wisdom I saw in a child who was barely five.
Later on, I got a call from her teacher that she had been in another fight. With a boy who was bullying another girl by poking her and calling her ‘roly-poly’. Apparently, my child had comforted the girl by patting her on the head and turned her ire onto the tormentor. Resignedly, I asked what injury the boy had sustained. To my surprise, the teacher replied, “Nothing. He started hitting her. But she refused to hit back. She just said a few words, took the other girl’s hand, and walked away”.
“What did she say”? I asked, mystified.
“She said – stop teasing my friend. That’s mean. People who make other people cry won’t be nice when they grow up”.
I closed my eyes and smiled. She came home that day with a bandage on her lip. Apparently, the boy had hit her on the mouth with his fist. And she hadn’t shed a tear, not even when the teacher treated the cut. I knelt and hugged her tightly. She turned her head in my embrace and whispered in my ear, “I didn’t hit him back mama, not once”. My throat choked up with emotion.
As children grow up, education might help give them certain definitions of right and wrong. But in the end, it is up to them to decide which side they truly think is right. This shapes the moral compass that they will go on to use for the rest of their lives. Empathy cannot be taught, the capacity for it is inborn. But it can be developed with the help of a guiding hand. The rest is up to the child.
Now, as she runs towards me on her tiny legs, I feel a strong flame of pride licking at my heart, one that would flare bigger and bigger I was sure in the coming years.
She was a breathing fire dragon. Rooted in her sense of deep empathy and understanding. She would never fit into a mould. She would overflow joyously out of it and take as many forms as she could, each one more exciting than the last. Most parents would probably try to contain that. Try to make sure she stayed within the lines.
But I would never extinguish that fire she breathed. Or the blaze in her eyes. How can I, when it mirrored mine?
First published here.
Image credits Chema Photo on Unsplash
Swathi is a freelance content writer, who lives and works in the city of Bangalore.
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