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The Velveteen Rabbit, or how I became real

Danielle Palkert | Monday, February 4, 2008

It all started in a desperate attempt to get the kindergartners to be quiet during quiet time. I had tried everything: Calming music, strategic sleeping mat placement, threats leveled against afternoon recess. All to no avail. So on this particular day, I was searching for inspiration. I scoured the bookshelves and came across a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. “Perfect,” I thought, congratulating myself on my cleverness and settling on a tabletop with a clear view of each of my 13 little miscreants to read. Sure enough, I knocked them out in no time – I’m pretty sure I was a hypnotist in a past life. But, to be honest, I hardly even noticed that they were asleep. I haven’t read The Velveteen Rabbit since I was about seven years old; and at the time, I was more fascinated by the idea of my stuffed animals talking than I was by the story itself. But 15 years later, in the midst of my year as a Jesuit Volunteer teaching kindergarten on a Native American reservation in rural Montana, I finally get it. The Velveteen Rabbit is my story. It is the story of anyone who has ever committed a significant amount of time to service. It is the story of how we became real, and how you can become real too.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

My parents were less than thrilled when I told them that, with the cost of a very nice car in undergraduate loans, my grand plan was to spend a year living on an $80 monthly stipend. Even now, I can’t really put into words why I did it, except to say that I had to. When it came right down to it, nothing else made sense. I was being called to service. God knows I tried to avoid it, and with all those loans some would probably say I should have, but I couldn’t. And that’s why it’s worth the pain and the tears and the sometimes seemingly endless frustration. Because it couldn’t have been any other way.

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Over the past five months, I have been loved to pieces. I have been hugged so hard and so many times that sometimes I think they mistake me for a giant teddy bear. I have had my midsection covered with stickers (they can’t reach much higher), and ‘I love you, Teacher’ whispered into my stomach enough times to convince me that the love of a five-year-old could single-handedly bring about world peace. Faced with the reality of a life radically different from the one I led at Notre Dame, I have grown shabby. Preconceived ideas have been loved off, certain worldviews have dropped out, and comfortable moral absolutes have grown loose when forced to go toe-to-toe with certain painful realities. But I really don’t care because these have made me Real.

“I am the nursery magic Fairy,” she said. “I take care of all the playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn out and the children don’t need them any more, then I come and take them away with me and turn them into Real.”

“Wasn’t I real before?” asked the little Rabbit.

“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”

My kindergartners have made me Real. But as the year moves ever more quickly toward May, the question becomes how to be Real without them, how to leave the comfort of this reality and carry its transformative character with me wherever I go next. And while I’m not quite sure yet how I’m going to do it – I suspect that it will be the love; the transformative, life-giving love I experience every day here that will pull me through it. So for those of you almost-graduates considering service, don’t listen to the people who tell you that it’s a foolish attempt to stave off the real world. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that ticks off the cost of your college loans and how hard it’s going to be to explain yourself to people who have “better” plans for you. In the words of the Skin Horse: “Become.” But know this: “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Danielle Palkert graduated from Notre Dame in 2007 and now serves as a Jesuit Volunteer in Montana. She can be contacted at dpalkert@gmail.com

The views expressed in this column are not those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.