Archived Story

It’s hard to be grown up around children

Published 9:37am Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

So I am in a play, and there are several children in this play. For some reason, at play practice, they flock to me like I am some kind of kid magnet.

Why is this?

You might imagine that I did something to get their attention, but I don’t believe so. For several of the initial practices I sat around, tinkered with my phone, rehearsed lines, then acted when it was my time to go on stage. I was trying my best to be a dull, dry, boring old editor guy and kid around with other grown-ups just a little to break the ice. But these boys and girls came up to me and sought to get me to give them attention. Being a sucker for kids, I complied.

Children must have some kind of radar for adults who have an active inner child. Am I approachable or something? I guess we are all still 13 years old deep inside.

The situation reminds me of one of my favorite memories of my trip to Guatemala. I went there as part of the Army Reserves, which I was in for a couple of years after my three-year stint in the regular Army.

Part of our mission was to interact with the local population. Guatemalans largely had seen their military as a danger to them, and we wanted to show how a military force can be a friend to the people. I was a mason and carpenter in the Army Reserves, and the unit was based in Muscatine, Iowa. We built a foundation for a school in a village called El Tablon. It was 28 kilometers from the border with El Salvador.

Many of my fellow Reservists interacted with the kids. They weren’t exactly the professional soldiers I had served with in the 82nd Airborne Division. The paratroopers had humor, to be sure, but they usually represented their division well to outside parties.

These Reservist guys, on the other hand, took their trip to Guatemala as a chance to clown around. They worked super hard when it came to building stuff, but other aspects of the job seemed to matter less. I’m quite sure the mentality has changed since then, seeing how Reserve and National Guard units changed over the course of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, this was 1995. The adults in El Tablon watched us, but the kids enjoyed coming right up and talking to us. The Reservists in my unit taught the kids how to box, how to say naughty words, how to give the finger or to do not-so-nice things like that, but not telling them what it means. Or they just ignored locals, making mean comments about them.

Meanwhile, I taught the kids to sing “Eensy Weensy Spider” in English. And the kids had hypodermic needles without the needles — thus harmless — and they used the plastic as squirt guns. I had the kids squirt our platoon sergeant, who was a nice fellow. Plus I sought to learn Spanish from them, and they were eager to teach it.

So after the foundation was done, the villagers of El Tablon prepared for us a big meal. I even got to see the pig stuck a few days prior. It squealed.

After the meal, the mayor wanted to thank us, so our platoon sergeant brought us into formation. The mayor talked about how this school was going to transform the village and how thankful he was to the United States. Then he told the children to hug the soldiers.

Nearly all of them rushed at me, and I fell over, swarmed by kids.

At play practice, I sometimes get in trouble for getting the kids to laugh and, thus, be noisy. We get the shhh treatment. Then I resolve to find a place to just ignore these kids and tinker with my phone while I am not on stage so I don’t get shushed. But they find me, and, to be honest, I like them. I suppose children just feel comfortable around some people. I like how kids have such a good, fun and spirited attitude toward life — especially these theater kids. They are all so outgoing!

After all, what is the purpose of life? To live it, of course.

Things in the play — a lively version of “A Christmas Carol” called “The Dickens Christmas Carol Show” — are getting more serious and cemented as the opening date of Dec. 1 draws near. Our cast gets along really well. Everyone is excited about this production, and our directors are really good with child actors like me, even though I play a grown-up named Peter Greenlaw. Still, I’ve been having the kids do quieter activities, such as play video games on my cell phone. Fooling around backstage cannot happen anymore, of course.

Just wait until the cast party, though. I think I will have to bring a board game or some of my son’s toys. I want to chat with adults, frankly, but I have a feeling these theater kids are going to pull me away. Who am I to not oblige? Kids matter, too.

I actually auditioned in the play to take a stab at acting again. I hadn’t done it since my first two years of college. Getting to know some of the children in the community, though, has been a wonderful side benefit. My job has me spending too much time with grown-ups dealing with grown-up issues anyway.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.