Three small marks, a blend of dirt and water, pocked the middle of the back patio. The small paw prints with elongated fingers, slightly larger than a quarter, did not appear before or after the three. My oldest three children, who always enjoyed following deer tracks in the backyard, saw me looking down at the prints and gathered around me. They are nosey that way.
“What are those?” and “Where did those come from?” quickly gave way to “I think it’s from a baby bear!” Speculation included a panther, a wildcat, a wolf, and a robber. Four-year-old Asher puzzled for a few minutes, walked across the patio, picked up his baby sister and carried her over the prints. Placing her hand down alongside the mysterious paw print, he declared, “It wasn’t Ellie Caroline!”
Ellie, relieved by having been cleared of suspicion, responded with something like “Ehhhh!” and shuffled away via her favorite means of transportation, walking on her knees.
By this time, I had begun to step back, watching the little detective crew struggle with the mystery before them. To be honest, I was still genuinely confused by the tracks, but that was nothing compared to observing the kids. They ruled out a deer because they had so closely studied their tracks before – “Deer don’t have fingers,” Temperance said. A wolf would be bigger, they decided, and a turtle’s “fingers” just aren’t the same. Frogs, which are more than plenteous in our yard, don’t have paws.
The investigation continued, taking them into the side yard, the expanse of the front yard, the front porch, and the woods behind the house. Hooting, laughing, excited calls to one another, all punctuated a profound silence that marked their play (or, rather, school).
Having recently re-encountered it, my mind recalled parts of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Barefoot Boy”:
O for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole’s nest is hung…
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy –
Blessings on the barefoot boy!
Entering the house only to collect supplies of flashlights, magnifying glasses, toy swords and guns, notebooks, pencils, and the flip-flops I insisted they wear into the yard (because I don’t praise everything about the barefoot boy), the search went on for hours.
Fascinated by the mystery and in awe of the wonder they enjoyed, I wanted to join in, but I believe my grown-up eyes would have hindered the search. I also realized that they were their own mimetic teachers and, in those moments at least, in no need of further instruction. They were learning, and they were free.
Cheerily, then, my little man,
Live and laugh, as boyhood can!