Penelope sat on my lap, sinking into my chest to get comfortable. Jenn sat to my right while Grandma Padgett observed from across the room. A group of children faced the Chinese instructor, responding to her questions in Mandarin. The teacher kept the lesson moving, seamlessly weaving activities, songs, and props into forty-five minutes of blitzkrieg learning and fun. When one child lost focus she brought them back, sounding stern yet friendly at the same time. This woman had skills!
Jenn and I balanced a parental highwire, nudging Penelope to participate while acting like we weren’t there. When the teacher was handing out stuffed animals Penelope wanted one but was reluctant to reach out for one. As the prime puppets got taken all that was left was a little cat. The teacher handed it to Penelope with a smile.
The room was full of toys and activities. Occasionally Penelope’s head would turn to look at something. I would gently remind her to “pay attention” and her focus would shift back to the teacher. Once I tried to back away, placing Penelope on the floor in front of me. She scooted back to Jenn and laid on the floor.
This was the first time a non-safety issue was leading to intervention. A moment of “I know you don’t want to do this but I want you to and really think you’ll thank me later” happened; I lifted Penelope up and placed her back in my lap, returning her focus to the activities. I wondered what Jenn was thinking.
Soon the teacher was holding six plates and what looked like a giant pill from the game “Dr. Mario”. Inside the pill were small fuzzy balls. “Whoever gets the black ball has to sing a song!” the teacher said. She identified each color in Mandarin. After a few minutes the children were pulling fuzzy balls from the pill. Red, blue, green. No black balls. “Want one” Penelope whispered. “OK sweetie, when it’s your turn”. Soon a black ball emerged. The teacher initiated a song for all the children. A few moments later the teacher offered Penelope the pill and pulled…a black ball. “Let’s sing a song!” the teacher said.
The socially awkward people pleaser in me cringed. Would Penelope feel the pang of unwanted attention as the only child not singing? Was I projecting too much of my own childhood onto her and this event she wouldn’t remember?
When the song was over the teacher had each student place the balls back in the pill. Penelope put her fuzzy black ball in the pill. I was confused and amazed at my daughter. She managed to act like she didn’t want to be there while hinting that she wanted to be there.
At the close of class the students stood up and grabbed a handle on a rainbow-colored parachute. Jenn and I stood next to Grandma Padgett while Penelope stayed with the students. As a song began to play the children started waving their arms up and down. Penelope smiled and laughed. She loved it.
After class Jenn spoke to another adoptive mother. She assured us that several of the children had been just like Penelope when they arrived; sitting in the back, not saying a word, some with parents by their side. After a few weeks the children were involved and the parents stopped sitting with their children.
As we left Jenn and I discussed enrolling Penelope in the class. It felt like taking the first step in a long journey. A circuitous route to get a slice of Penelope’s cultural heritage back.
We received confirmation on Monday; Penelope will start class in June. And we’re as excited as a family that just ate at the Cafe Jonah.