Last week I sat in the AMAZE office stuffing persona dolls. AMAZE does not order our dolls from someone else. Instead, we make them at home. First, artist Stephen Michael creates the faces using photographs of real children. He infuses each face with personality and identity. Then Susan Morris creates the doll bodies, using a pattern modified from one sent to us by colleagues in South Africa. The clothes we find in the way that adults have always found children’s clothes: we go to garage sales, secondhand shops, and scour the racks for something cute. And then we bundle these ingredients together and bring them home.
Jennifer Goggleye takes the raw ingredients and puts them together to create something that is much more than a finished product. She creates a being, a spirit, a personality, a story that leaves our home to end up in your classroom, your childcare center, or your home-based childcare.
I have worked with AMAZE on and off for close to 15 years. I have sat in rooms where 10, 20, and sometimes 30 persona dolls have been stacked on the couch steadily watching us work. I have talked about AMAZE’s work with these dolls in grant applications, newsletter articles, and meeting minutes. If you had asked me, I would have said that I know these dolls. So why did that one Wednesday afternoon change that?
Like many of you, most of the time that I am working I am in a particular kind of adult mind. I am thinking about what needs to get done, how much time I have to do it, and the things I need to get it done on time. When I am like this, the dolls are just an object to write about, to move from one place to another, or to ignore.
On that Wednesday, I was stuffing white cotton into a doll called Allana. I leaned her over my knee and pushed form into her cotton skin. As I picked her up to see if she needed more cotton, my hands naturally took the curved palm shape of an adult holding a child body. It’s the shape I took with my daughter and the other children I have cared for: body tucked up against my shoulder, palm lifting up baby or toddler butt to help keep them snug against me, other arm soft against their back. It’s what we do with a sleeping small being, one whose muscles have let go into rest. But this time, of course, I was holding Allana this way because she has no muscle tone. She’s a doll.
At that moment, I felt my heart open up and make a connection to Allana. Strange, isn’t it? I now cared about this doll. And my adult mind with all of the work I had to get done? Well, it sat back and watched as I finished up with Alanna and set her down in the pile to be sewn and then clothed.
I knew that Alanna was a doll. I wasn’t worrying about the sewing needle hurting her skin or anything else overly strange. But even while I knew she was a doll, I could feel a connection. There was a tug at my heart as I saw her across the room, waiting to be finished.
Jennifer talks about the spirits in these dolls. She has said that when everyone at the office is stressed or tired, she talks to the dolls like children, telling them not to worry, that everything is okay. She does this fully knowing that they are dolls and not human children and still, at the same time, knowing that it matters.
None of this is confusing to the children who claim these dolls as friends. In the same way that we can look at a photograph of someone we care about and feel our love for them even though they aren’t actually there, children can look at someone like Alanna and, upon hearing her story, form a relationship that matters. And, like all relationships, what they experience with Allana builds over time. The children learn from their relationship with Allana, and Allana becomes an integral part of the community of their classroom.
Sitting there holding Allana on my lap, I knew that she was a doll, and as I felt my affection for her rise up and surprise me, I also felt stories come alive in my mind. They were just there waiting for me, these stories about the little girl on my lap. And, of course, every single story that I made up about Allana was really a story all about me. It was my imagination. And that’s what makes persona dolls work. Because as children gather around dolls like Allana to talk about themselves and their friends, their imagination gives them the chance to practice the work of relationships and connection, of conflict and negotiation. And because Allana, as a doll, is so amenable, the children get to practice these things in a supported and gentle way.
After that Wednesday, I asked Jennifer to tell me the next time she has a big shipment to put together. I want to make more dolls. Sitting on the chair with Allana or DeShawn or Choua cradled in one hand and a pile of cotton batting in the other, I can feel each of these dolls come together like a prayer, a story, a song. I want to do like Jennifer does: to take the time with each creation to hold the love in my heart that each child who meets this doll well and fully deserves.
Sitting on the chair with Allana or DeShawn or Choua cradled in one hand and a pile of cotton batting in the other, I can feel each of these dolls come together like a prayer, a story, a song.