It was a gorgeous late summer’s afternoon. I’d walked down to Riverside Park to find a bench and maybe catch a sunset. I’d barely settled down when a little girl came along, no older than two.
She was trotting in front of her mother, stumbling along the path the way kids do when they’ve just learned how to walk. As she stumbled in front of the bench, she turned to examine me.
She looked back at her mother, who smiled back at her, and without a word, she hopped on the bench next to me.
“What’s your name?” I asked. No answer, but she smiled.
The mother spoke: “Muñequita, decirle su nombre.”
“Maria,” said the child, looking up at me with beautiful blue eyes.
I’d been fooling around with a Rubik’s cube all the while and I noticed her eyeing it, so I put it in her hands. When I looked at the mother to make sure this was okay, she smiled again.
For the next 10 minutes or so, she played with the cube while talking to me in her own language. Whether it was Spanish or her own made-up tongue, I couldn’t tell, and I was too shy to ask her mother. She’d say something I couldn’t decipher and I’d respond as if I’d understood, and it was like we were having an honest conversation.
“We should go,” her mom said after a while. “Her daddy is waiting. Maria, devolver el juguete.” The girl looked at the cube and then at us, hesitating, not knowing what to do.
To me, the cube was just a thing, a dollar store toy. To Maria, it was a whole new world. I told the mother she should keep it.
“No thank you, it’s yours,” the mother said, still smiling. “We’ll get her another one.”
“Please, just keep it, it doesn’t mean anything to me. She’d be so happy to have it.”
“No,” she repeated, sterner than before. “She has to learn.”
I looked at her, confused. Learn what?
“That she has to give things back.”
The first time she refused, I thought it must have been because I was a stranger. She didn’t want her baby playing with random toys from random bench-sitters, being influenced by who knows whom.
But that wasn’t the case. She involved me in Maria’s life in a much deeper sense. She turned me into a life lesson about respect. I wasn’t some guy with a toy any more—I was a teacher.
Sometimes, living in Manhattan, there’s not much of a community outside of the Columbia bubble. Everyone’s got their own business and their own circles, and that keeps people from reaching out.
But a child has no circles, and a child’s business is reaching out. And to a little girl like Maria, the most seemingly shallow interactions are profoundly impactful. Maria won’t remember me, but her mother let me be a part of her life—a shaping figure, however slight, of her formative years.
And even though we couldn’t understand each other, I felt closer to her than to most of the people with whom I’ve had the superficial “oh you study X?” conversations. Because unlike them, Maria didn’t reach out to be polite—she did it to discover me.
After enough prompting, Maria dropped the cube back in my hands and hopped off the bench. She started to stumble forward again, but stopped and turned around.
“Fank you!” she said with the biggest grin on her face, her big blue eyes sparkling in the sunset.
“You’re welcome!” I said, and then I had to look away for a moment.