Kids Are The Solution To Tigers

photographs and text by Jessica Stammen

Editor’s note: In the wake of September 11, 2001 I worked as a volunteer and artist in residence at Ground Zero in Manhattan. St. Paul’s Chapel, the little fieldstone church that escaped the morning’s disaster unscathed despite its location across the street from the WTC, was my church at the time and it became my base of operations during the entire nine month relief effort. I don’t know that I will ever experience anything quite like St. Paul’s again. It was the epicenter of love, warmth, color, creativity and light at the edge of a vortex of all things opposite. It profoundly effected my understanding of what it means to be an artist and a human. I was a junior in college at the time and enrolled in a personal essay writing class. My experiences at Ground Zero were often my subject matter. What follows is an essay from March of 2002, accompanied by photos I took at St. Paul’s. 

On Mondays and Thursdays I’m the luckiest girl alive. On each of these afternoons I get to go over to Giacomo’s house to play. My three year old friend and I will dress in make-shift capes, plastic swords at our sides, and hunt in deep closets for the tiger that prowls through his house. His parents say with a smile that they have never seen this tiger. But his parents also think that my two hour visits are filled with grammar and vocabulary in a disciplined effort to teach their three year old Italian son the nuances of the English language. His mother will greet me with “Ciao” at the door, announce to Giacomo that I have arrived for his English lesson, and leave us to it, the new workbook she has just bought in my hand. But I do not know Italian, and Giacomo does not know English. Communication through instruction is impossible, so we just play.

We will fumble through our disconnects of language and age to complete at least one of the workbook pages in order to ward off too much suspicion from his parents. But I can tell when Giacomo is at his breaking point, and when I am at mine. That is when we head for the lego bin. “Build,” “broken,” and “fix,” were simultaneously our first breakthroughs in English, thanks to legos. It is understood that I am in charge of building houses for lego men, forts for lego soldiers, cars, planes, and boats for lego transportation, stables for lego horses, and weapons to protect us from the tiger that will occasionally distract us from our lego world. It is also understood that Giacomo has a special talent for breaking my creations.  While I am in the middle of constructing his lego racing cars, he will approach me, hands outstretched with three large chunks of a destroyed lego jet plane. He will shrug his shoulders and say with his wonderful accent, “Broken; you fix.”

Some afternoons Giacomo and I will color together and I will help him title his master works in English. We decorate the interior space created by floor-length-curtains-turned-teepee-style-house with his drawings, hanging them with the tape from the kitchen. On the outside we attach a sign, “No tigers.” On the inside we are busy creating with crayola crayons.

I am teaching Giacomo but he, too, is teaching me to see freshly, in simple ways that only a child could. One day we sat in the living room cutting string to make paper towel parachutes for his lego men when he, not yet in complete control of his small motor skills, sliced my finger with the scissors as I held the string and pointed to where he should make the cut. A bit of blood rushed out. Both of us looked at each other in mutual surprise and after a second or two he said, “Broken.”

My parents like to tell the story about the Easter when I was three years old. We were at church on Good Friday and during the most silent and solemn time of the mass I popped up from under the pew where I was coloring and started asking, quite loudly, “Who died?  Who died?” When the Christmas season rolled around, the creche scene was set up near the altar. During one of the Advent services the priest invited parents to bring their children up to see baby Jesus after mass. My parents say I was so taken with this idea that, when my dad carried me up to receive a blessing during the Eucharistic celebration, I didn’t care if the mass was over or not. He remembers turning back to our seat carrying a little girl who was crying and screaming out, “I want to see Jesus!” 

When I’m not with Giacomo, I am at Ground Zero in my church which has functioned as a relief effort for the rescue and construction workers since September 11. The interior space has been transformed from a stark colonial structure by hundreds upon thousands of rainbow cards and drawings sent to the workers from children all over the world. All surfaces–walls, columns, pews, pulpits, and table tops–have disappeared behind a lining of construction and fat lined paper that shivers with a wave of movement as the doors open and anyone enters. Little kid scrawl spells out messages in crayon and marker like, “Thank you for saving people,” and “Crane operators are awesome.” Every misspelling imaginable is exemplified, and words one never knew existed are on display. Giacomo’s spoken blunders are surpassed by these printed ones. Nonetheless, they are received with a smile by men in hard hats, and with quiet tears by hearts made soft.

I am the luckiest girl in the world to be surrounded by kids, by the thoughts of kids, and by thoughts on kids. They are good to think about. Like curtains-turned-houses or a church-turned-womb, they surround me. Outside are the boring lessons, the frozen churchgoers, and a city marked by destruction. I, too, post a sign that says, “No tigers,” and continue to draw on the inside.