We were practicing small talk. “What is your favorite season?” was one of the questions on our worksheet. When the teacher asked me—her once-a-week classroom helper—what I wanted to say was “all the seasons, every one of them,” but for the sake of demonstrating to English language learners how small talk typically goes, I said “Summer.” And smiled. And on this cold, gray January morning, everyone in the classroom sighed, because just by saying the word out loud—summer—I had brought summer into all of our minds for about one second.
I felt like a poet, who had just recited a one-word poem. Short though it was, it needed no other words.
I felt like a helper, who had just taken a classroom of refugees, exhausted by the daunting task of learning English, on a one-second vacation.
As we plunge into this fraught year, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Rogers’ oft-quoted advice—“Look for the helpers”—and pondering why this simple phrase has had such a comforting, calming effect on so many millions of people, myself included. I came across a 2018 essay in the Atlantic by Ian Bogost in which he chastised adults like myself who have clung naïvely to this advice intended for children. “Ironically,” Bogost wrote, “when adults cite ‘Look for the helpers,’ they are saying something tragic, not hopeful: Grown-ups now feel so disenfranchised that they implicitly self-identify as young children.”
But I disagree. Adults understand nuance. We know the helpers can’t make everything better. But we also understand that it is essential to know they exist. To know who they are, and where they are, and what they need from us: how we can help the helpers. So that we do not collapse into utter despair.
Which is where the poets come in. Their gift is to be a different kind of helper: to give voice to anguish and need; to coax us to pay attention, to comfort us when the help we need is both personal and universal. As U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón writes at the end of her poem called “The End of Poetry:” “…enough of the high water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease, I am asking you to touch me.”
A few nights ago, my husband and I watched as a band of helpers on the coast of Baja helped a few dozen baby sea turtles find their way to the ocean. About a quarter hour after sunset, the helpers emerged from the nursery tent carrying plastic basins, each holding about a half-dozen turtles. The hatchlings were no more than about four by four inches. With the gentlest touch, the volunteers lifted them out of the basins and set them in the sand about six feet from the water. Then they stood back and waited. Some of the babies started right out. Some barely moved at all. The non-starters, we were told, would get another chance the next night. It got harder and harder to see them as the sky darkened. The timing was intentional: after sunset, they were less visible to predators, too.
As the first and fastest were picked up by the tide and carried out, we all clapped. Quietly.
Tiny, tiny, not 24 hours old, they had walked into the vast Pacific. It looked like courage. But it’s what their genes told them to do. Somehow, the babies knew to keep their pointy heads pointed straight ahead, and just keep going, in a sort of flattened army crawl.
They need helpers, now, for a lot of reasons: the nests their mothers dig, hidden deep in the sand, are regularly dug up by poachers, dogs and other predators, or crushed by ATVs or human feet. Their odds of survival aren’t great, which must be why mother turtles lay 65 to 180 eggs at a time.
I’ve always liked the feeling of January. The days begin to lengthen. I get to celebrate another birthday. I might get to go on a trip, like this one to Baja. But in January 2024, we’ve got turmoil and trouble already boiling over everywhere—in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in the lead-up to an election where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
And so I’ll look for the helpers. And help them if I can, and thank them if I cannot.
And maybe we’ll all make it to where we need to be, whether it’s a passing score on the ESL test, or saving our democracy, or the swirling waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Honored to have this essay, The Empire Builder, published this month by the Museum of Americana.
Writers: Just a few spots left in my winter Intro to Memoir Writing class (virtual). Details here.