Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Lizard

Friday afternoon, my five-year-old had big news.

"Guess what, mommy? Liz shrank."

Ummm...yeah. "Who's Liz?"

"She's our school pet. Liz the Lizard."

Ahhh. Now I remember. The first week of school, this was one of Ainsley's favorite things about kindergarten.

"What do you mean, she shrank?"

"Well, for a long time we watched her get bigger and bigger everyday. But Tuesday she was really small."

I hate to break it to you, kid, but that lizard didn't shrink.

I don't tell Ainsley this, that her teacher pulled the ol' switch-the-old-dead-animal-for-a-new-live-one trick. When Ainsley's first goldfish died, we were honest. We had to be; when Ainsley went into her room, the fish was tipped over motionless on its side on the bottom of the tank. Plus, she caught Jason holding Glory's netted body over the toilet. That one's not so easy to explain away.

But just because we told her her pet had died doesn't mean her teacher should break that to the whole class. Some of those kids have probably never lost a loved one, cold- or warm-blooded, before. No need for them to lose their innocence.

How amazing is it that kids that age believe what they're told, even when logic should tell them otherwise? At five, there is a part of Ainsley's little brain that knows that living creatures do not "shrink", just as strongly as it knows that the sun comes up every morning and that the sky is blue. I learned as an English major about the "willing suspension of disbelief"; is that device ever more powerful than when we're five years old and our parents tell us to be good so that Santa will come, or to put our freshly-lost tooth under our pillow so that a little fairy can bring us a dollar, or that that different-looking animal in the cage is the same hamster that was there when we left for school?

For now, I will let her believe that Liz just got smaller. Unfortunately, there will be other losses to come that no fairy tale, no fanciful story, can ease. There will be other losses that can't be replaced. Her heart didn't quite break when Glory died; after one day of sadness, she was over it and ready for her new fish, Ila (who, thankfully, is thriving.) Someday, though, she will lose something or someone who she will miss the rest of her life; she will feel it in her heart and her soul, and there will be no disbelief to suspend. It will be all too real.

Today is not that day.

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