All the Heavy Things You Have to Haul

Just because I find myself in this story,
It doesn’t mean that everything is written for me.
If I think the ending is fixed already,
I might as well be saying I think that it’s OK,
And that’s not right!

Most of the work I do, the things I’m interested in, are focused very heavily on helping children and the people responsible for their well-being access the resources that are so critical. Access to education, information, and support are absolute necessities in the social cycle of going from infant to adult, and those things become more and more inaccessible to greater portions of the population every day.

Some time ago now, my friend Nanna went on a trip to London and got home absolutely gushing about Matilda: the Musical. It’s currently only playing in London, so let me disclaim right away that I haven’t seen it, and what follows is an interpretation of the songs based only on my knowledge of the source material, Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

What I’ve found, listening to the soundtrack, is that where once I might have seen myself in the precocious, gifted, bookworm of a title character, now it’s Miss Honey’s story that really touches my heart. The musical itself gives more context and background for the teacher’s fears (if you listen to the album, the story that Matilda tells the librarian of the Escapologist is tied in), but even without it, there’s some pretty intense emotional weight there. In a solo number, “This Little Girl,” Miss Honey laments,“what sort of teacher would I be / If I let this little girl fall through the cracks? / I can see this little girl needs / Somebody strong to fight by her side. / Instead, she’s found me.

As heartbreaking as that is, it’s not the moment that hits me the hardest (though it hits me pretty hard). No, at the top of the list of heart-wrenching moments comes at the end of the song “When I Grow Up.” The number enters with Matilda and her classmates listing the things they hope to be able to do when they’re adults. It’s a common list:

  • I will be tall enough to reach the branches / That I need to reach to climb the trees/ You get to climb when you’re grown up.

  • I will be smart enough to answer all / The questions that you need to know/ The answers to before you’re grown up.

  • I will eat sweets every day, / On the way to work, and I will /Go to bed late every night.

  • And I will wake up / When the sun comes up, and I / Will watch cartoons until my eyes go square.

  • I will be strong enough to carry all / The heavy things you have to haul /Around with you when you’re a grown up.

  • I will be brave enough to fight the creatures / That you have to fight beneath the bed /Each night to be a grown up.

  • I’ll play with things that mum pretends / That mums don’t think are fun.

Then there’s the gut-check: Miss Honey, one of the first friendly people Matilda’s ever known and her only adult ally at school–her only adult ally in the world apart from the librarian–comes in and repeats the verse about the monsters. It’s not so much that it’s that individual verse; it could just as easily have been the one about the trees, or the one about burdens. The point is that, while the children are absolutely facing monsters that are very real, monsters that are part of many children’s lives, and depending on the promises of the dreams that are equally common, Miss Honey is depending on them, too. Though it would be a poignant song without Miss Honey’s voice, this character, who knows the role she’s playing in Matilda’s life and is certain she’s incapable of fulfilling it, is still waiting to feel like she’s grown up enough to fight the monsters. We know that the children, even over the course of the song, are adapting to the things they’re dealing with and adjusting their wishes, and their understanding of adulthood, accordingly. Most of us remember that process, the moments of realizing we’re not going to be rescued from whatever it is that scares us. What Miss Honey does as an adult character, though, is remind us that most of the time, it’s not because we no longer need to be rescued.

Being an adult in our society is not so much about having escaped the things that try to hurt us. Too often, in fact, it’s about us giving up on the hope of being rescued. I mean this in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Literal in things like women being torn to pieces trying to prove that they’d done everything they could to prevent a rapist from raping them (and depending on who you ask, nothing is ever enough), in things like people with disabilities being refused social assistance because they’ve “used up their time” even though their disabilities haven’t changed, and in so many other ways. If we need help, it’s intentionally difficult to get, because needing help–admitting that there are still things hurting us–is supposed to be an aberration rather than the normal.

Life is hard. It’s hard for everybody, in different ways, and while some of those ways are much bigger than others, it doesn’t mean the little difficulties don’t benefit from the kindness and support of friends and community. Too often, we are expected–or at any rate feel like we’re expected–to keep all that under the rug, quiet and still. I’ve spent time talking with dozens of people, from down the street to across the globe, who daily mention how there are so few places where they’re allowed to admit not only that theyfeel vulnerable, but that they are. That life, real grown-up life, is still full of big hairy monsters. That they need more support, sometimes material but much more frequently emotional, because otherwise the monsters out there are just too much.

I truly believe, and am invested in, the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. That’s not something most people can or should have to do alone, and kids generally become better people with the input of a diverse group of adults and peers. This belief is core to the work I do. But the more days of my life I spend in the grown-up world, the more I realize that it also takes a village to be an adult. We need each other, our communities and families born and built. Our society has yet to come close to being invested enough in our communities to support children, and it’s still part of what I consider my life purpose to help our communities do better in that regard. It’s just that every now and then, I need the reminder so I don’t let it slip from my mind that we have to support the adults, too.

The Taste of Cherries in Their Teeth