Age Two: Danielle in Wonderland

Chapter two graphic

Danielle still didn’t talk or walk, although she could crawl faster than most two-year-olds could walk. Nonetheless, it interfered with her social life. Other two-year-olds didn’t want to make friends with a girl who still acted like a baby.

Mom found it challenging to find other kids to attend her second birthday party, something that Danielle seemed to be aware of. Mom invited three other kids, cousin James who was one, and the two-year-old twins Rachel and Ryann from next door. Mom put up streamers and balloons, but was not smiling. I remember finding it a bit embarrassing as there wasn’t much of a party spirit. Danielle didn’t smile either. I tried to engage the kids in games like pin the tail on the donkey, but it was not my most successful party.

“I’ve asked Dr. Sonis to come over tomorrow,” Mom said to Dad that evening in one of their many conversations about Danielle’s “differences.”

“Well that won’t hurt, but I really don’t think it’s necessary,” Dad replied. “Anyway, you’re the child psychologist.”

“I can’t evaluate my own child,” Mom said. “Maybe I’m too close to the situation. I just don’t know what we should be doing with her.”

Most evenings, we ate dinner in the dining room by a panoramic window that overlooked the stream. I was usually assigned to help Mom set the table. Mom took pride in having everything in place before we sat down to eat. My specialty was folding the cloth napkins to look like little mountains. I kind of took these dinners for granted back then, but they’re among my fondest memories now.

Dr. Sonis made his visit. I could swear there was a smirk on Danielle’s face as she was introduced to him. She quickly pressed him into service, sitting three of her dolls on his knee, putting aprons on them and serving them tea. I was invited to join the party and showed off my napkin folding skills.

The next evening at dinner, I talked with Mom and Dad about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was still my favorite book. “The Caterpillar4 is a really interesting character,” I pointed out.

“He gives Alice a hard time, don’t you think?” Dad chimed in.

“He gives everyone a hard time,” I replied.

Mom smiled at my reply. She once told me that she loved listening to conversations, because it gave her a gauge of how children were developing.

Dad settled in to enjoy our debate. “But his rudeness seems mostly directed at Alice.”

“The Caterpillar didn’t understand Alice very well when they first met,” I replied, “which explains why he was so rude to her.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Danielle suddenly said. “He’s the know-it-all. Kind of like you, Mom, and Dad. He always seems to say what’s coming.”

Mom dropped the wooden bowl of berries she was about to serve. A blizzard of blueberries bounced across the table. Most of them ended up in Danielle’s and my laps.

Dad gave Mom a look like, What did I tell you? and calmly asked Danielle, “So how come he always knows what’s going to happen?”

“Cuz he’s the one who makes it happen,” Danielle declared.

Mom’s eyes sparkled with fascination. She still stood there with her mouth agape. No one cleaned up the blueberries.

What makes you say the Caterpillar is like Mom and Dad?” I asked.

“He’s always trying to teach Alice a lesson,” Danielle replied. “Like he gives her the mushroom to make her bigger, and she learns that there is more to growing up than just being big.”

“Wow, that’s quite a message,” I said.

Danielle replied, “Well, it’s the Cheshire Cat5 who actually explains it to Alice, but it’s the Caterpillar’s lesson.”

Composing herself, Mom asked, “What about the White Rabbit6? Do you like him?”

“Not really,” Danielle answered. “He acts kind of like a big shot. He’s not very nice to the people who work for him, but he’s kind of fake-nice to the even bigger shots, like the Queen of Hearts.”7

“Good point, darling,” Mom replied. “It’s not very nice to be fake-nice.”

“Yeah,” Danielle said. “I read about a guy who called that obsequious.”

Tears streamed from Mom’s eyes, I couldn’t tell for sure if she was happy or sad, but I think it was both.

“What guy?” I asked.

“Oh, I think his name is Ronald. It was in a book called Wonderland Revisited.”

“Hey, that’s my book,” I said, “I was wondering where it went.”

“It’s such a cool word,” Danielle added. “Ob-see-quee-us, ob-see-quee-us … Sounds kind of like what it means.”

“That’s onomatopoeia,8 Danielle,” Dad replied calmly.

“Obsequious is onomatopoeia?” Danielle asked.

“What Dad means is that obsequious is an example of onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like what it means.”

“Oh, okay. So ‘onomatopoeia’ is not onomatopoeia,” Danielle said with a smile.

“I think that’s right, Danielle,” I replied, “although I’ve often wondered about that.”

Danielle and family discuss the word 'onomatopoeia'
Age Two: Danielle in Wonderland. View more illustrations.

“Anyway,” Danielle concluded. “Alice is just nice to everyone. I think that’s the way we all should be.”

Later that evening, when Danielle and I were alone, I asked her, “What else have you been doing in your room? Secret cartwheels?”

Danielle shook her head no.

“You know Mom wants you to walk. I assume you’ve tried it?”

Again she shook her head.

“Let’s try, then.”

She took my hand and was able to stand rather easily.

“You must have tried this part, right?” I asked.

She nodded her head yes.

“Hey Dani, you do talk now, remember?”

“Yes, I’ve tried standing.”

“You’re pretty good at it … Let’s try taking a step. Put one foot forward like this.” I demonstrated for her.

Holding my hand, she took a wobbly barefooted step on the white carpet in her room. I got the impression that this was really her first step. She just hadn’t wasted time with it before. We slowly walked around the room saying hello to her dolls, and then around again.

“Hello again, fancy meeting you here,” we said to each doll with each passing. By this time, her legs were getting shaky.

“That’s pretty good for now, Danielle. Let’s do some more tomorrow.”

We practiced each evening, and a few days later she was walking on her own—still a little tentative, but she had it.

“We just have to figure out how to introduce your new skill to Mom and Dad,” I said. Danielle had a plan.

“Thank you, Claire,” Danielle said. She gave me a big hug.

The next evening after dinner, I suggested that we all take a walk.

“I’ll get the stroller,” Mom said.

“No, I’ll get it,” Danielle said. She did her fast crawl to the hallway.

“Maybe if she didn’t crawl so fast—” Mom began to say, but before Mom could finish her sentence, Danielle came out of the closet walking, pushing the stroller in front of her. Mom teared up again and hugged Danielle.

“I guess that’s another use for the stroller,” Mom said.

“Actually, I don’t think we need this anymore,” Danielle said, as she pushed the stroller away.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” Mom said. And with that we took a very slow stroll toward the park, although it appeared to be Mom who was slowing us down.

The stream that passes by our house goes through the park, and the ducks gather there. People always feed them right next to the Do Not Feed the Ducks signs. Danielle took off after one of the ducks, not running exactly, but she seemed to have mastered the art of fast walking.

Danielle threw a rock in the water. The duck then scampered away from the wide part of the stream and toward Danielle. She let out a yell and made a face. The duck started quacking angrily, reversing direction again. She played this little cat and mouse—or Danielle and duck—game with each duck we encountered. Each time Danielle cracked up hysterically. We walked back to the house at an even faster pace than before.

Before Danielle’s bedtime, we often got together, like we did when she practiced walking. Some nights I read to her, even though she could read for herself. Sometimes I made up little songs and sang them to her. It was our special time together.

That night, as we were having our goodnight ritual, Danielle suddenly burst into tears.

“Hey, what’s the matter, Dani?” I said, but she didn’t hear me. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed her and she hugged me back. I held onto her and gradually her cries softened into a whimper. I continued to hold her until she fell asleep in my arms. I didn’t know what the crying was all about at the time, but I think I have a better understanding of it now.

Ever since Danielle was born, Dad had talked about starting a school based on his idea of “learning from doing.” He bought a small campus that had a long history as an Episcopal monastery, a brief stint as a country inn when the monastery moved to northern California, and was then abandoned for ten years.

Before Danielle could talk, Mom was not thrilled with the idea. “If you’re so interested in education, maybe you could focus on the fact that we have a two-year-old daughter who can’t talk,” was a typical comment.

Once it became hard to get Dani to stop talking, Mom joined in the school planning. She took responsibility for setting up the counseling department, but took special delight in designing the renovations and landscaping. At home, the walls of the kitchen and hallway were filled with Mom’s sketches.

“I should have been a designer,” she often said. Danielle was quick to adopt the place as “my school.” She took after Mom in the decorating department, building a scale model of Mom’s landscaping ideas. Danielle was at the construction site almost every day planting flowers. I usually joined her when my classes were over.

She told me she was in charge of the flowers, and she seemed to have her own very specific plan for their arrangement, a plan she was not open to any input on.

Dad had a little ground-breaking ceremony with the people who contributed some of the money. Danielle was running around like it was her opening, making sure all her flower beds were in good order. Before I knew it, she was dragging Martine Rothblatt,9 the CEO of United Therapeutics, over to see her flowers.

“It’s nice to meet you, Miss …”

“Danielle. Danielle Calico.”

“Ah, so you’re the precocious daughter.”

“Reporting for duty.”

“This is a cool design you have here,” Martine said, referring to her flowers.

“Yeah, it’s the layout for the computer instruction codes in the Analytical Engine.10 See, these pansies are the op codes and the poppies are the operand addresses.”

“Awesome, Danielle,” Martine replied. With that she started counting. “Yup, there’s forty positions in each row. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a computer made of flowers,” she said with a broad smile.

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t run.”

“The analytical engine didn’t run either,” Martine noted. “But that didn’t stop a brilliant young woman named Ada Lovelace11 from writing programs for it. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the world’s first computer programmer, even though it would be another century before there were computers you could run programs on. She was a lot like you, but a bit older.”

“Yeah, I’ve read about her, I think she’s really cool,” Danielle said, as she noticed one of the pansies was out of place. She tried to dig a hole to move it, but the tough Pasadena soil was not budging. Danielle took a serrated spoon that she used in these situations out of a pocket in her pant leg and loosened up the dirt enough for her spade to dig in and move the pansy.

Dad gave a speech to the people assembled in the courtyard for the ground breaking about his idea of kids learning from taking on world challenges. “Whether they succeed or not,” Dad said, “they might actually learn something they will remember.”

Dad described his inspiration. “I was looking for ways to educate my two daughters, who are here with us today. A couple of years ago, I paid a visit to the European Education History Museum in Vienna and discovered this remarkable school, the ‘Stern Schule,’12 which practiced ‘learn by doing.’ It was, incidentally, the first school in Europe to provide higher education for girls when it opened in 1868.

“It was founded by a courageous woman, Regina Stern. The idea was very controversial in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and was met with considerable criticism and anger. She bravely lectured throughout Europe on the importance of women’s education and how to go about it. It was taken over years later by her daughter, Lillian, who became the first woman in Europe to get a PhD in chemistry. Between these two women, they ran the school for seventy years until they had to abandon it when fleeing Hitler in the summer of 1938. If they had stayed any longer they would not have been able to escape.

“In honor of these two great women,” Dad said, “the new school will be named ‘The Stern School.’”

With that, we all took turns with the shovel, ceremoniously moving a bit of earth. Dad had brought a small shovel for Danielle to use, but before he could grab it, Danielle was wielding the big shovel with gusto, although she fell over trying to use it. Each of us took a turn—Danielle, Dad, Mom, me, Charlie, and the other kids who had come for the ceremony.

Oh yes, Charlie—we met a few months earlier, when I had just turned ten. His family moved in nearby and he joined my fourth-grade class at the Chandler School. I was still a little uncertain of myself then, and he showed up in my life as this very friendly, accepting person with a big smile. He had wavy red hair which always ended up in front of his eyes. He also came to this country when he was six, having arrived from Ireland with his mom after his dad died of a heart attack. He was tall and lanky and prone to dramatic gestures, like falling into the stream—also a human-made one as there were few natural streams in Pasadena—with his arms spread wide, splashing whoever was with him, which was generally me.
Charlie and I played games in the field during recess, trying to skip stones across the stream. This is very hard to do in moving water, but he was a pro. He’d glance at me whenever he got one to see if I was watching. I always was.



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