We had been in Russia for a whole two weeks now and were at our final destination in St Petersburg. For 15 hours a day over 14 days, we had been clowning everywhere and anywhere that was humanly possible. We had visited many orphanages, hospitals and nursing homes and had clowned all through the streets of Russia. On this final day, we were to visit a large orphanage for children with disabilities.
As we arrived, we were informed that we would split into smaller groups so we could reach as many children as possible. I remember finding myself with a group of about eight clowns from all over the world. By this time, all the clowns were like family and we had grown very close to one another. The eight of us were led by a staff member through many doors and stairwells till we finally reached a small room of children. If you have worked with children with disabilities, you will be aware that sometimes they can be very excitable and engaging. As our group of clowns entered the room, all the children started to jump up and approach us with great laughter and excitement.
As I was dancing with one particular child, I remember noticing two children in the corner of the room on a large beanbag who were not engaging with anyone. After I finished my dance, I started to slowly make my way toward them and sat quietly on the beanbag. I then began stroking them gently; one boy on his stomach and the other on his back as I started to sing the little I knew of a Russian lullaby. As I was singing, the boy whose back I was rubbing slowly began to sit up. And there he was, the boy in the jacket. I had only ever read accounts of children in orphanages who were kept in straight-jackets. To suddenly be in front of one shattered me to the core of my being.
I turned to the staff member who was close by and, through the translator who was with us, asked if the jacket could be removed. I was met with resistance and was bluntly told, ‘He is a violent and aggressive child and will hurt you and himself’. I reassured the staff member that I worked with children in my own country and that if at any point she felt he or I were unsafe, she could put the jacket back on. Hesitantly, she agreed but, as she removed the jacket I was met with a look, which I translated as ‘you are a crazy foreign clown’.
During my time with the boy, we began the dance of getting to know one another. He was uncertain at first and slow to engage. As I began to open up to him, he too slowly began to open up to me. I remember how particularly excited he was with a squeaky rubber chicken that I had with me. I also remember thinking it was funny when he started to gesture to the staff member to ‘go away’. I remember then also thinking that, if I was kept in a straight-jacket all day with an absence of any physical touch and movement, those would be the two very things I would long for most. And so we began to move, dance and sing together. For over half an hour we danced the dance of connection until he finally curled into my arms as I held him close.
The whole time all this was happening, I remember noticing the staff member, who was still close by, slowly beginning to change in her body language from rigidity to softness. Not once during my engagement with this boy had he hit me or himself. As the boy was in my arms, I heard this staff member say something to the translator. I immediately asked the translator, ‘What did she say?’, and was told, ‘She has just said that, this is the calmest she has ever seen this boy’.
I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion at this point. I wondered whether through our connection we were able to show this staff member the possibility of love, hope and understanding. I held him even closer and whispered, ‘Yellow Blue Bus, Yellow Blue Bus, Yellow Blue Bus’ which translated from Russian means ‘I Love You, I Love You, I Love You’, as a tear rolled down my cheek. As I said those words, I could feel him return them to me, not through words but through his very being. It was one of the highest experiences of love I have ever felt. So unconditional and so pure.
As the clowns were given the cue that it was our time to leave the orphanage, I left with the boy my squeaky rubber chicken, which I had carried with me all through our two-week journey. It was a gentle and bittersweet goodbye. Before I left the room, I went up to the staff member and gave her a big hug and said, ‘Yellow Blue Bus’, to which she smiled and returned that all too familiar ‘you are a crazy foreign clown’ look, but this time with so much more kindness and joy. I turned away and, as I headed to the front door, my fart machine went off to roaring laughter from the children and staff in the room. This was a wonderful way to close an amazing trip filled with many touching experiences, and I will never forget my time with ‘the boy in the jacket’.
‘Yellow Blue Bus’. I Love You.
Shaun Chandran is passionate about making a difference in this world, striving to live his life as his message; a message of peace, love, human rights and social justice. From Perth, he works as a psychologist with children who have experienced episodes of abuse and neglect. He works in a team of incredible individuals and loves his work.
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