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The Dragon at the Top of the Stairs

Dragon final

Here’s one from the archive

You won’t find it mentioned in any Albany guidebook, no matter how obscure. And forget about Google. Even the beefed-up security force of the post-911 era hasn’t a clue that there is a dragon residing at the rear of the New York State Museum. That’s right, a real, live, fire-breathing dragon, one wise and powerful enough to survive St. George and all the other knights in shining armor, and in modern times Walt Disney, Harry Potter, and reality TV.

It was my wife who first uncovered this startling fact, quite by accident, not long after the museum’s construction over thirty years ago. One morning Betsy was walking with her kindergarten class along the edge of Lincoln Park, above which the building perches on a man-made plateau overlooking the historic eastern portion of the city. It was midwinter. Suddenly someone spied a plume of steam coming out of the roof directly above a giant spiral staircase that rises up mysteriously in the back and appears to lead to nowhere.

Now any other observers would have foolishly assumed what they were seeing was the exhaust from an unseen heating vent, made visible by the frigid January temperatures. But for Betsy and her kids there could only be one possible explanation—dragon’s breath.

The group boldly decided to investigate. Slowly and with much trepidation they wound their way up, stopping frequently to listen for any sign that the dragon might be awake. At the top, some fifty feet above the ground, they found a bronze colored door, big enough for a mastodon to fit through, set into the museum’s top storey. The door was locked. They decided not to knock, unanimously agreeing that arousing a slumbering dragon might not be such a hot idea. Besides it was almost lunchtime and their bellies were beginning to growl.

But why the museum? Was the ancient reptile attracted to the almost medieval cast of the building’s ultramodern design? Or to the excellent hunting opportunities afforded by the adjacent park, which covers a dozen city blocks and is replete with small tasty mammals? Or maybe it wanted to be near its dinosaur cousins, who stand frozen in time inside.

Later that evening Betsy reflected privately on the morning’s events. Perhaps, she mused, if children had a wish—not the Santa Claus variety but some urgent, deep-seated need—and if they had the courage to walk up those stairs alone and drop their handwritten supplications on the dragon’s doorstep, then possibly the dragon might read them and make them come true.

So Betsy came in the next morning and talked with her kids about the magical powers of dragons. She asked them if there was anything they thought they might need their own dragon’s help with. Not surprisingly, all seven heads nodded vigorously. Then she met with each child privately to help write down the messages. After that they bundled up and headed off for the back of the museum, freshly penned, or I should say penciled, notes tightly in hand.

Thus a tradition was born, one that has become an annual rite of passage for Albany Free School five-year-olds. After fifteen years or so, Betsy left the school to become a midwife and I was appointed leader of this bizarre pilgrimage of preschoolers. This year, when I returned to working primarily with our elementary-age students, I passed the torch on to Mike.

Which is how it happened that Marie, trembling with a delicious blend of terror and excitement, looked up at me during breakfast yesterday morning and said, “Chris, Mike told me I should ask you if you will take our class up to the dragon’s house today.”

I nearly choked on the coffee I was sipping. Marie was holding two carefully folded pieces of loose-leaf paper, the letters done in purple marker.

“Can we, please?” She was probably beginning to wonder why I wasn’t responding to her question.

But I was too stunned—of all children, Marie. Just the other day Mike and I had shared our concerns over her upcoming transition into the elementary section of the school. Here the only actual division among students is between the two floors of the old parochial school building. The preschoolers occupy the second floor and are therefore known as “upstairs kids.” When they are mentally and emotionally mature enough to steer themselves and to hold their own in the school’s system of governance and conflict resolution, they graduate from the preschool and move downstairs to the first floor. Marie is responsible almost to a fault. But she is also a timid, sometimes tentative child, and leaving the upstairs nest can be quite daunting at first.

“I wrote down my wishes at home last night,” persisted Marie, not a trace of hesitation in her voice. “I sounded out the words all by myself.”

I had been meaning for months to initiate Mike and his kids into the mysteries of the dragon, but had just been too busy downstairs. Obviously it was time.

“Wow, Marie, you already have your notes?”

Her grin broadened.

“Of course I will take you, but I really think we should talk first. I want to make sure you all realize what you’re getting yourselves into.”

“Can we do it now?”

Before I could answer she had already dashed off to round up the others. In that moment a leader was born.

I counted seven young heads sitting at the low table in the kindergarten room. How perfect. “Do you know what a dragon is?” I asked the assembled group.

My question set off a flurry of descriptions, to which I added occasional embellishment so that everyone would be sufficiently wide-eyed before we departed.

“And do you understand that the dragon will only honor your wish if you are brave enough to climb up to his doorstep by yourself?”

“Oh, that’s okay; I’m not scared,” chimed two cocky boys in the class, almost in unison.

And Denial is a river in Egypt.

I left Mike to help the kids with their notes, and about a half-hour later the nine of us set off up the hill. Normally Free School outings start out like the Indianapolis 500, with the kids racing madly to the next corner and waiting for the slowpoke adults to catch up. But this time no one seemed eager to set the pace. At times Mike and I had to be careful there were no little shoes underfoot as we walked. The two “fearless” boys were uncharacteristically mute.

When we arrived at the base of the staircase I reminded everyone about the necessity of making the ascent alone. “And it’s okay if you don’t make it the whole way the first time,” I added. “Mike can bring you back as many times as you need him to.”

What ensued was as funny as any Three Stooges outtake. “I’ll go second,” said one of the kids.

“No, I’ll go second.”

“No. I’ll go second.”

As the echo continued to ripple through the group, the scene grew even more comical. The kids actually formed a physical line—very uncommon behavior for free schoolers—and each time they found themselves in the front, they hastily dropped out and retreated to the rear.

Meanwhile, Mike and I did what any good teacher should do in a novel situation such as this: we became invisible. While the kids chattered on like nervous birds driven to cover by a hungry falcon, we sat back against a concrete pillar and stared off blankly into space.

A full ten minutes passed before any feet mounted the first step. And then an interesting kind of group support began to emerge. It took shape organically, in the wonderful way that children’s play always does when it isn’t adult structured and managed. The kids, each in turn, began climbing one step higher than the classmate before them. I was suddenly reminded of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, in which he suggested that it is cooperation and not Darwin’s “red in tooth and claw” notion that propels forward the evolutionary process. Very often, observed Kropotkin in the wilds of his native Russia, a species under threat will work together to co-invent a way to survive.

The kids’ shared strategy got them up and around the first turn, out of sight of the ground. But for some time this remained the upper limit. No one was willing to chance it any further. It was simply too damned scary.

And then up stepped Marie. “I’m going to try to go all the way,” she announced quietly.

There was still fear in her expression, but also an unmistakable look of determination. Mike and I turned toward each other and nodded. It didn’t take a mind reader to sense that something big was about to happen

The other children must have felt it too, because one by one they fell silent when Marie climbed beyond the first curve and disappeared from sight.

A minute or two passed, but it seemed much longer. Then there came a high-pitched call from the top. Not a shout, but somehow that voice could’ve been heard over the rush hour din in mid-town Manhattan.

“I made it!”

I looked to my left and saw Mike quietly take out the blue bandana that he sometimes wears over his closely shaven head and begin dabbing at his eyes. It was quite a sight. This former personal trainer, with thick gold rings in his ears and muscles bulging out of a tee shirt that always seems two sizes too small, had been moved to tears by the triumph of his student.

There are so many teachings embedded in this very true story, about Einstein and the power of imagination, or Bruno Bettelheim and the positive uses of enchantment, or children’s inner knowing and their instinctive ability to create the growth experiences that are right for them, or the importance of facing our fears in our own time and our own way. I could write a whole book, really, but instead I will conclude like I think the wise old dragon might—and leave the readers to draw their own conclusions.


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks Chris. I remember you regaling us young interns years back with a story about the dragon. What an incredible school, an incredible story and an amazing teacher to record it all.

    January 14, 2014
  2. Arnold Greenberg #

    A lovely, powerful story and well told. It’s in the imagination that inventions and discoveries begin. Einstein was right when he said the imagination is more important than knowlege. Thanks for sharing that story.

    January 14, 2014
  3. A wonderful story for everyone today! These are the memories that keep us going.

    January 14, 2014

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