Ruby slouched in a corner, bottom lip bulging. The droves of other 2- to 7-year-olds ignored her, since a distressed child was more common than a calm one. I hesitated to speak, anticipating the melodrama that was about to erupt. Then it began:

Me: Ruby, what’s wrong?

Ruby: I want that toy.

M: What toy?

R: That one?

M: The one Diana’s playing with?

R: Mhm.

M: Diana, can you come here? My friend Ruby has a message for you.

(This is the script I’m supposed to recite to help kids with “conflict resolution” at the after-school program. Enter Diana, holding wooden pepper Ruby wants from toy kitchen.)

M: Ruby, what is your message for my friend Diana?

R: Diana, can I have please that toy?

Diana: No, I was using it first.

M: Ruby, it sounds like my friend Diana had the toy first. …

(Obviously.)

M: … Why don’t we find another toy to play with? There’s lots here in the kitchen. Look, there’s ice cream and cucumbers and—

R: I don’t want those toys. I want that toy.

M: I’m sorry, friend. My friend Diana was playing with it already. There’s lot of—

(Commence intermittent whimpers, building slowly into cry.)

M: Why don’t we go into the office, friend. We can cry there as much as we need.

R: I don’t want to go to the office!

(Cry builds into tears.)

By that point, another teacher had to intervene. I was obviously out of my depth with this four-year-old and her lamentation and bitter weeping, refusing to be comforted or extracted from her corner. With significant effort, another teacher did escort her to the office to deal with her feelings (and to give the other kids some quiet). But instead of purging her emotions, Ruby now raised her voice. Heaving, asphyxiated sighs were the only silences punctuating her groans, more like growls and croaks now, which rumbled from her tiny larynx throughout the (now seemingly tiny) building.

Eventually, this rasping wail was too much even for the office, and a teacher accompanied her outside. I don’t know when it ended. But some time later, Ruby rejoined the rest of “my friends.” Streaky eyed and tense, now drained of her passions, she spoke to the other children with some reserve. I asked the teacher who’d been with her after I couldn’t handle it anymore, what had happened? As I had done, the teacher kept offering other materials or locations to mollify the child. But at the height of Ruby’s anguish, she exclaimed, “I don’t want anything! I don’t want to be anywhere!”

At the end of the day, when Ruby’s mom came to get her, I asked another teacher if we should mention the incident to the parent.

“Nah,” said the teacher. “That’s just Ruby.”

*

I had been feeling at ease for a day or so. I was starting two projects that engaged me, in intellectual and in spiritual ways, and they felt like forms of real service. I was spending all my time with people I wanted to be with. I was praying semi-regularly, and felt more vibrant and more stable. Knowing myself and my neurotic qualities, I could sense how precarious this internal homeostasis was. But I held my breath a little and kept going.

Then, I saw an unattainable crush I was trying to forget, and—damn. Gone were the focus and the calm. Back to the aching restlessness.

I told a friend about the guy. And I told her about Ruby, too. These kids, they just can’t stop wanting: to steal that toy, to smash their brother into a box, to run where they should walk, to avoid toilet time, to eat inordinate portions of snack. But behind and through all of it, I wonder if they want something they can’t name, and those passing goals are just helpful distractions. Regardless, when they get frustrated, when they can’t have God-knows-what, they don’t stuff their feelings (I’m a pro at that). They collapse. They explode. They clobber somebody. They bolt. They are vulnerable in the original, un-trendy sense: wound-able and helpless. They have no equanimity. Every five minutes is another conflict resolution, another Band-Aid, another sulking child sitting out. And they only survive (I’m almost not exaggerating) because someone else, a little bigger than them, has their shit a little more together (since we teachers are potty trained) and is watching out for them.

So I asked by friend what we were gonna do about this situation. I figured I couldn’t really howl my problems away. (For one thing, even when I try to cry, my eyes won’t.) So instead, we made dinner. And we popped chocolate-covered almonds like narcotics. And we downloaded her dating app again and swiped through every man in town. (Not exaggerating.) And then we watched mindless videos on Tumblr. Which is, I think, our shared, adult equivalent of collapsing onto the playground in exasperation and hoping someone can console and divert you, which she did.

Image credits: Mostafameraji (modified), Christian MehlführerFran Vesel (public domain in the United States)