It all began last summer.
I was working at the local library as a volunteer summer-reading-program helper, which meant I sat at a little table and checked little kids in and out as they reported the books they had read. Sometimes, with the more enterprising ones, I got to hand out prizes. Sometimes these took the form of stickers, other knickknacks, and occasionally books.
A little tiny girl, probably not more than five, came in with her grandmother and peeped up at me over the edge of the table, waiting for eye contact. I smiled at her. “Hello.”
“I finished,” she whispered, almost inaudibly, with that peculiar gleam in her eyes as she waited to see if I approved.
“You finished another book?” I asked, smiling a little more brightly.
She nodded slowly, looking a little uncertain. She glanced up at her grandmother. “I believe that was the last one required for the summer reading?”
“Ah,” I said, smiling again. “What’s your name?” I asked the little girl.
“Cindy,” she said.
“Her last name’s Smith,” added her Grandmother.
“Okay. And how old are you, Cindy?” I asked, reaching for the blue binder. The two binders were divided by color—blue for kids under ten, green for older ones. My guess was correct. “Five.”
I found her page, checked her record, and added the book her grandmother handed me. As they had said, it was the last one. She had finished.
“Good job,” I said. “Now you get to pick a prize. You can take something from this,” I said, tapping the ugly cart full of everything from rubber spiders to sparkly bouncy balls and fake jewelry, “Or a book from the treasure chest over there.” I gestured toward the hideously gaudy cardboard box, dressed up to look like a treasure chest and brimming with books.
The little girl nodded and began to sort through the cart. I returned to my book, but watched her surreptitiously. She was excited, and showed her grandmother every sparkly thing in the box before finally picking a massive green plastic ring.
“Thank you,” said the grandmother, catching my eye. She bent down to the little girl’s level. “Say thank you to the lady.”
The little girl trotted around the cart behind the table to where I sat, City of God on my lap, until she was almost touching my knees. She stared up at me, all excitement and eagerness, the ring clutched in her little hand. “Thank you, Lady,” she said politely.
“You’re welcome,” I said. She grinned at me, and ran back to her grandmother. She took her hands and was led off into the depths of the library, gazing in awe at the ring in her hand.
And just like that, it was no longer simply “Thanks.” It had become “Thank you, Lady,” and I felt it. The innocence flooding from her little self when she spoke to me as “the lady” had touched me more than either she or her slightly embarrassed grandmother knew. Sixteen years old is closer to twenty than to ten, but it took the courtesy of a little child to make me see it—and I honestly believe that was the moment when I began to leave childhood and embrace the next part of my life.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” –1 Cor. 13:11