My phone was broken. Well, actually the phone was fine, but the screen was shattered, so with no way to access the data inside, I took a trip to the Verizon store and got in line.
I stood behind a woman with two daughters: the younger child was running about the room playing with a ball, and the other was confined to a wheelchair playing with her mother’s car keys. I didn’t recognize the older child’s disability. She couldn’t speak, but she was alert and focused on her play. She held a key ring with a big metal butterfly, a thick electronic car key and a number of regular metal house keys.
We all waited a very long time. At last the weary mother ahead of me was called to the tech counter, and I sat down on the bench she had occupied. As I did, an amazing, humbling thing happened. The older child turned her full attention to me and, in a very methodical way, began to teach me how to play with keys.
I could see her watching me to see if I would get it. She showed me how to shake the keys and tap them on the metal of the chair to make sound. “That’s an interesting sound,” I said. But she wasn’t finished. There were more games I needed to learn. She tossed the keys onto the bench to see if she could get them to land just at the edge of her reach, but not so far away that she couldn’t retrieve them. She showed me how to drop the keys down into the wheel spokes and then roll forward or backward to try to bring them back within reach before the keys fell to the floor. She seemed to enjoy setting herself a challenge, introducing the element of risk—risk, because if the keys fell on the floor she would need someone else to intervene before the game could continue.
As infants we develop what is known as “theory of mind” by which we attribute intention to the actions of others. We imagine other minds—what they are thinking, what they know, what they are trying to communicate to us. It’s how we make sense of a world with other people in it. It’s how we connect.
I don’t know what made that little girl look at me and risk reaching out. Why should she think there was a mind in my body when surely many people had assumed there was no mind in hers? Where did that confidence come from? And what brought out the teacher in her? What led her to show me something fun that she understood and I did not? I was just a tired woman with a broken phone in a long line until a child who could not speak decided to teach me something new.