Toto, We’re Not in New Brunswick Anymore: A Tale of Resilience

Holland TunnelOnce upon a few weeks ago, I was headed to the joint conference of The Association for the Study of Play, and the International Play Association of America, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. I had carefully planned my route from Pittsburgh to avoid, at all costs, the series of roads I most feared: I-95 and its wicked spawn 295, 395, 495 and 695, which slither around the East Coast like venomous snakes. As someone who dislikes heavy traffic, and has no sense of direction, the extra half hour it would take was my gift to myself…I’m all about lowering stress, especially when going to a PLAY conference, for heaven’s sakes!

I had printed out my directions since my phone GPS seems to ignore my penchant for alternative routes at times. But, as darkness began to fall, I decided that it would be a good idea to type in the hotel address, just in case. When I glanced down at my phone a few minutes later, I saw that I’d put in 3 Albany St, New Brunswick, instead of 2 Albany St., and in a rare moment of precision, I decided to correct it. My phone flashed me some message about how my route had changed, which, duh, I realized since I’d changed the address. And I drove on into the night.

I kept seeing signs for the Holland Tunnel, and New York City, and I won’t say I didn’t pay attention. But surely, I reasoned, the path to New Brunswick would veer off at some point…the cities WERE kind of close, right?

Then a skyline rose in the dark in front of me. Dang…that sure LOOKS like NYC! And as the gazillion lanes of traffic I found myself merging into inched toward the huge sign shouting “Holland Tunnel,” I began to second guess myself. How could this be right? What was I going to do? And, I HATE TUNNELS (due, I’m sure, to the same lack of spatial reasoning in my brain that contributes to my horrible sense of direction, and makes me feel like I will crash into the walls).

I took a breath. I kept driving. And as I was hurtling through the bowels of the beast, I refrained from acting on my first instinct: to scream and stop the car in abject terror. I self-regulated, using that private speech that Vygotsky said helped children scaffold their own instincts with adaptive action: “I will be fine. It’s just a tunnel. A really, really, really long tunnel. No one else seems concerned. Stopping is not a good idea. Nor is screaming and banging my head on the steering wheel. Maybe there’s a tunnel before New Brunswick….I will be fine.”

As I finally exited the tunnel, and saw a sign pointing to the Financial District, I at last admitted to myself that I was, indeed, in the only driving location that terrified me more than the 95s…New York City. Alrighty then.

At the first light, I checked my phone, which was still giving me directions to turn left, turn right. Traitor! And that’s when I noticed two things: 1) I was headed to 2 Albany St., New York NY, instead of 2 Albany St. New Brunswick, NJ; and 2) my phone was almost out of juice. I stayed calm and followed the phone’s directions and about the time I “had reached my destination,” my phone died completely. It was 9:30 at night, I was alone in New York City, with no idea about where to go, and dead tired from driving for six hours after working all day.

Time to call up my resilience fairies! I drove around the block several times, considering my options.  I would call my dear friend Bud…who was somewhere in the city! Oh, right: no phone. OK…how was I going to charge my phone? My computer! Which was in the trunk! I carefully pulled the car into a bus lane, turned it off, and leapt out, raced to the trunk, snagged my computer bag, jumped back into the driver’s seat, and in a few minutes, had plugged my phone into the USB port. Proud of my initiative, I sat there, in the bus lane. Gradually I became aware that maybe I couldn’t just sit there til my phone charged…something about the nasty looks of other drivers and a police car that seemed to be circling…

I drove slowly around the block again, and saw a parking garage. Forty dollars for an hour???? Um…no worries. I had, after all, some magic plastic in my purse that would cover the time it would take to charge my phone.  I pulled in and explained my situation to the attendant.  “New JERSEY???? How did you get here??? I don’t know how to get you back.” Then he suddenly pointed to a car about to exit: “That car’s from Jersey! Ask them! Stop them!”

I charged towards the car, waving my arms. Slowly the window rolled down, and with only a slight look of suspicion and disbelief, the driver shook his head and asked me why I didn’t use my GPS. Um. Dead. Then he shook his head again and gave me a “Turn left, turn right, veer right at the curve” series of directions that would get me back to the Holland Tunnel. As I thanked him, he smiled and said, “After that, just look for the signs for 95…that should get you somewhere close to New Brunswick and you can ask for directions again.” And off he drove.

The parking attendant refused to take any money and pointed me to the exit. Attachment, the third protective factor which along with initiative and self-regulation makes up resilience, doesn’t have to come from family or friends. The kindness of strangers, and being open to ask them, will due in a pinch. Maybe THAT’S why so many fairy tales have “magical helpers” who appear out of nowhere, right when they are needed…

I made it to the play conference late that night, having overcome a series of (relatively minor) adversities and even more committed to helping teachers develop these attributes  of resilience in young children with intention and purpose.  Whether it’s family substance use disorder, or abuse, or grief, or just being lost in a strange city, we all face dragons at some point. The powerful secret weapon of resilience helps to protect us from those dragons so we can go on to play another day!

Want to know more about resilience? Check out this blog post, or this one, or, for more in-depth information, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and the Devereux Center for Resilient Children offer lots of information and resources!

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