There are several kids in my class who still hold hands. It seems like the most natural thing in the world. Interlacing your fingers with another’s must be one of the oldest human gestures. It says so much. That singular gesture is invariably positive. It demonstrates trust, compassion, comfort, and friendship. It is a sign of love.
My finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my thumb – your thumb. The webs between my fingers contacting yours. The bones of my hand entwined with yours.
When we are little we reach up for the hand of the people we love – sometimes just to be sure of them. When we are big we reach down to show that we are there, that we care, that we must cross the street safely together, that we won’t get separated in a crowd. We reach down to grasp a little hand almost as a reflex. To express our love. To show simply that we are within reach.
Babies are born with an intense need for touch. Babies who spend a lot of time in hospitals and orphanages where they do not receive skin-to-skin contact fail to thrive. I read about this interesting study where librarians were asked to alternately touch and not touch the hands of their students as they gave back their library cards. Those whose hands had been touched by their librarian reported “far greater feelings about themselves, the library and the librarians than those who had not been touched. This occurred even though the touch was fleeting and the students didn’t even remember it.”
In our classroom we touch pretty unselfconsciously. Certain kids zoom in for a hug every morning. Others opt for a fist bum or a hand slap. Some will come in quietly without checking in with me. I usually give them a noogie or a high five when we do catch up. But we touch.
There are many girls who still hold hands in our classroom. They grab hold when we walk to the public library, or to the recess field or to the cafeteria. Some boys may still hold hands at the beginning of second grade, but by the end of third it is a rarity. There are a couple of guys who are always sitting close enough so that their legs touch when they are on the floor. And we do a lot of teaching and learning from the floor. Our girls often touch, run their fingers through or smooth out each other’s hair.
This morning as my students took a big, high stakes test in our computer lab, the feeling in the room was one of intense concentration. This was the kind of test that pushed every child to the wall. I’ve written about this before. It started out easy, but as they answered simple questions correctly, the subsequent questions were more and more challenging. Glancing over their shoulders at the answer choices, I was amazed at how difficult this must have been for them. And yet no one complained. No one whined. No one cracked under pressure. I walked around the room every few minutes just checking in with a touch on the shoulder or a pat on the back. To soothe, to connect, to praise them and to show my gratitude for their effort. It was a gesture that words can’t quite explain.
It’s sad to me that many of us become self-conscious about touch as we get older, especially guys. At some undetermined age, and it is probably a little different for everyone, little ones (especially boys) stop holding hands with their friends, brothers and sisters and parents. Girls are lucky in my opinion. They can hold hands freely with their besties.
I suppose holding hands for little boys is like crying when you hurt yourself. At some point we stop crying for physical pain. Comments like, “big boys don’t cry” probably help to extinguish it.
When I was in Rwanda I saw men holding hands routinely. My friend Brandon took a picture of two very rough looking soldiers in camouflage, each with a machine gun slung over his shoulders, holding hands walking down a busy street. It was as natural as anything there.
Adult guys can still hug briefly if there is a manly slap on the back at the end of the embrace. Let’s not read anything too personal into this hug, right? Shaking hands is the norm. No weapons, right?
At the end of my mom’s life I was blessed to have been there for her final week. We touched so often. The first night I was there in New Mexico at my sister Ruthie’s I spent in the office guest room. Then for the next several nights I slept with my mom. I needed her touch. And I think she needed mine. I think she needed grounding. I think she needed to be sure of me. We slept with our legs touching or my hand on her shoulder, or holding hands. And through the days and evenings when she was awake we sat close enough to touch. During her final hours, when she had lost consciousness, Ruthie and I stroked her hair and rubbed her back. We held her hand - just as she held ours when we were little, to protect us, to make sure we didn’t get lost or frightened, so we could be sure of her.
I can smile when I remember her touch now. But I miss that touch like nothing else.
I can think of my mom now and not cry every time at missing her. I expect that I will cry for a long time when I remember her and miss her touch. Even though big boys don’t cry.