Eric and the Baba Yaga

Eric’s Dad was in prison. His mother was a cocaine addict who had run away, leaving him with his grandmother. The cocaine his mother took while pregnant with him left its mark upon him. In my kindergarten classroom, he would lash out at other children if they came too close to him, or he would withdraw to a corner. He was unable to deal with new situations or anything too stimulating. The only way he could cope with school was by having a desk in a far corner of the room where he was allowed to retreat if necessary. He would listen to what was going on in the classroom from a distance, and he would do his work if he was left alone. But mixing and playing with the other children wasn’t something he could handle. The other children stayed away from him because they knew how easily he would become angry and start a fight. Yet, I could see a yearning within him as he watched the others. He wanted to be part of the community of the classroom, but every attempt ended in failure.

One day, I had the other children gathered around me on the story rug. I was reading the book Babushka Baba Yaga by Patricia Polacco to them. As the story of this legendary creature unfolded, I saw Eric sit up and look toward us. In this story, the Baba Yaga is believed to be a horrible monster who eats children, but in truth is kind and very lonely. In her longing, she decides to enter the community dressed as a babushka, or grandmother, and becomes a grandmother to a child who needs one. (As I was reading, I noted Eric get up form his place across the room and come over toward the rug, standing on the other side of the bookshelf from us.) Then, the story took a turn and one of the other babushkas tells a horrible story about the Baba Yaga. That night, Babushka Baba Yaga tries to calm her grandson’s fears about this story before putting him to sleep and leaving, never to return, for fear he would learn the truth of who she was.

One day, as her grandson is playing near the forest, wolves surround him. The people of the village can’t get near to save him. But the Baba Yaga comes from the forest, snarling and gnashing its teeth at the wolves. The people think that this will be the end of the child, but she kisses him, and he realizes it is his babushka.

By the time I had finished this story, Eric was sitting on the edge of the rug. The other children went off to play, but Eric grabbed the book from the shelf and pored over the pictures. In fact, each day thereafter when he came into the room, he would look for the book and sit with it. He allowed me to read it to him again and again. What was it about this story that so appealed to him? He never told me, so I can only guess at the reasons. But it was interesting that it was  a story of a misunderstood monster with the capacity to love a little boy that began to bring Eric to the edge of our community.

Sometimes, I am reminded of all of those who suffer because they are not in full community. It is no small miracle that when life brings us together, calling for out own love and care, we are released from our bondage, no matter what form it may take, and we are more able to show love and compassion towards others.

After that year in my class, Eric was put into a special education program for the emotionally impaired. But the story that touched him was brought back to mind three years later as his teacher and I discussed ways to help  him return to a regular classroom. As a third grader, he returned to my classroom, this time as a “helper” to work with individual children. Eric still has a long way to go, but I was able to catch glimpses of hope for him as he tried to help smaller children. His way into the community, as was true of Babushka Baba Yaga, began with his capacity to care.