Giddy school kids soon will leap from classroom doors and into the heat, free at last to roam and explore during the short-lived gift we call Minnesota Summer.
Natasa Nguyen might smile at that notion. Eight-year-old Natasa enjoys spectacular adventures every week of the year, thanks to her mentor and friend, Jim Latimer.
When Natasa was 4, her mother, who grew up in Vietnam, asked Jim, a neighbor, to tutor Natasa in math. Oh, the places they’ve gone since then. The two meet every Friday afternoon and again Saturday mornings at the Minneapolis Central Library, stepping onto buses and trains toward destinations across the Twin Cities.
“Most of what I do with her happens during our roughly hour-and-a-half trip by bus and train from downtown,” says Jim, who doesn’t own a car. “So many things happen that otherwise would never happen.”
Natasa carries sketchbooks, creating poems, collages and pictures of everything they see, and a lot that only Natasa sees. At 5, she shared a poem with Jim, written on handmade paper.
“My hair is windy. It tells me where the wind is going.”
They travel far and wide, exploring dinosaur bones at Macalester College’s Olin Science Building, admiring vibrant sculpture by Judy Onofrio at the Weisman, riding the escalator to the ninth floor of the Guthrie Theater to look out onto the mighty Mississippi. At Edinborough Park in Edina, they look up from their lunches to notice two trash receptacles charmingly painted as people. Natasa begins to write.
“ ‘Do you want a cracker?’ Sally asks Charlie. ‘Any ketchup?’ Charlie asks. ‘Yes. Pretend ketchup. It’s good.’ ”
Jim also makes sure that Natasa arrives safely and promptly at her classes at Circus Juventus in St. Paul where, after her first trapeze performance, the directors awarded her “Best Style & Smile.”
Jim, the father of a grown son, grew up in Detroit, studied art and later taught 4-year-olds in Harlem and Head Start in New York. He earned a Ph. D. in child language and cognition and taught at the college level for many years. Now, he creates and repairs books at Campbell-Logan Bindery in Minneapolis, and tries to keep up with his bright and energetic protégé.
“During the week, I’m preparing,” he says. “It’s become the main creative thing I do.”
On a recent Saturday, Jim and Natasa, along with Natasa’s friend, Estella, explore circuits at The Works, a hands-on learning center in Bloomington.
“Let’s try this,” Jim suggests gently, reaching for a switch.
“Jim!” Natasa says, “you’re confusing me.”
Jim laughs, mainly because this is rarely true. “She’s outgrowing me,” he says, then pauses. “I don’t think she ever needed my help, you know?”
He cherishes these adventures for however long she’ll have him. Natasa seems in no hurry to move in another direction, at least not yet. She is still listening, still learning, and admirably fighting the youthful temptation to hurry.
“Droplets, silver pearls on needle points, touch them gently and they come clinging to your fingers,” Natasa and Jim write together as they ride the bus on a rainy afternoon. “Leaf trees do not handle droplets very well, but trees with needles do.” □