Kindergarten Lesson #9 – Gift of Stubbornness

Our morning ritual at school includes a trip to the cafeteria for breakfast where one of the favorite treats is boiled eggs. Yesterday at breakfast I was peeling a particularly stubborn egg for a remarkably patient child. In my frustration with the task, I remarked about its stubbornness. “What is stubborn?” asked one of the children and a conversation ensued. “It means sticky!” suggested one child in response.  Though it was an unusual synonym, I think he was on to something worthy of note.

I paused to wonder with the children about the value of being stubborn, confessing my own tendency to be so. Though I am aware that the word is rarely used in a complimentary fashion, I find that its value is often underrated. In truth, every one of the children have stubborn streaks. Survival demands it. Without a tenacious will to survive (read: stubbornness) these children would have faded into the woodwork rather than demanding a response. Looking around the breakfast table, I have to give thanks for the stubbornness that instinctively fuels their will to live.

It was of course later in the same day that Miles refused to finish the final page on his end of year test. Even after a confrontation with another staff member and separation from the group, he would not budge. In fact, a half hour went by and then another and another. A guest came bringing treats and special activities and still Miles was sitting silently with his unfinished test. Coaxing, threats, planned ignoring… we had plenty of time to try it all but the bottom line is that his stubbornness out witted all of our schemes. Finally at the very close of the day, for reasons not readily apparent, he made a different choice. He wanted to drink the awaiting soda and so he (in a matter of minutes) finished the test and rejoined the class. On his own terms.

In my adult life my stubbornness is most often felt as I guard pieces of my truth. People around me may have different and at times even competing versions of the same story, and the more threatened mine feels the more tenacious my hold. This is not, I realize, my most endearing quality.  As I consider the cost for Miles, I realize that every time we cling we not only develop our muscles (which is valuable) but we also miss opportunties. Sometimes the cost is well worth reward, other times not so much.  In and of itself, stubbornness is value neutral; it is an incredible tool that can be used for good or ill.

While the particular behavioral expressions of our stubbornness may not be helpful, as I welcome the clear blue sky this morning I am so very grateful that the children feel the value of holding onto something precious. Kicking a desk, or worse a teacher, is not acceptable; but for a child in crisis it is a small price to pay to extend a measure of self determination. And in a world where survival is tenuous, such self reliance is key. While I correct and redirect towards more positive expressions, I secretly cheer the strength that such egregious behaviors belie. I look forward to the day when the passion can be channeled more appropriately, but for today I celebrate that the passion has not yet been extinguished.

Let’s face it, boiled eggs can be a pain to peel. Sometimes downright annoying, so much so that we may be tempted to simply throw them away. But the simple goodness of the egg once peeled? Well worth the struggle.  The children’s stubbornness, and for that matter my own, are testaments to our determination to hang on to what is of value.  So my hope for this new day is simple: that our best selves be sticky.

Kindergarten Lesson #8 Love’s Persistance

At week’s end I found myself at Adam’s desk, scribing for him the things that he treasures on the finger tips of his traced hand.  The only thing more precious than the traced hand of a five year old are the eyes of wonder that behold it.

Our first task was to write the name of someone special to us on the outline of our thumb. Like most kids, Adam’s first response was to name the person standing before him.  “You,” he shouted with glee. To be fair, Adam does know and care for me; but let’s face it, I am a bit player on the stage of his life.  He was emphatic so I put my name down and invited him to think about who else was special in his life. The answer was on almost every other handprint all around the room: my mom. Mothers ruled for a brief moment in our classroom.

Curious is that the question was an open one and there was no prompt, yet the answers were almost identical. Curious was the consistent response in a group of children for whom motherhood is at best complicated.  Many do not currently live with their mothers, many of their mothers have been unable to protect and care for them, several of their mothers have been abusers.  This was perhaps the one place in America that didn’t ring with Mother’s Day songs just before the second Sunday in May.  E’en so, when asked about the person they most treasured, so many little ones said “my mother”.

In fairness, I haven’t met Adam’s mother. Adam’s language development is delayed and so he rarely communicates verbally about his home life. Much of what I know of Adam’s mother is through Adam’s presentation. Yet even the short story is bleak. Imagine a difficult childhood, multiply by 10 and then add some more. You get the picture.

Were Adam a young adult or even a teen I might suggest that he lauds the person that he wishes his mother to be. Once caught in a bad romance, my couldn’t-be partner said, “Katy, I fear that you are in love with the person you want me to be.” Often we place people on pedestals and revere them, but what we adore is a myth of our imagining rather than the flesh and blood person bearing the name and image that we’ve ascribed. This is a common psychological ploy that we humans engage, but it is not the practice of childhood.

Children are in the moment and quite concrete. When Adam says that his mother is special to him, he means the woman who put him on the bus this morning with all of her foibles and limitations and challenges. When Adam says that he adores her, he doesn’t mean that he adores what she might be or what he saw in her yesterday; he means that he adores her just as she is.

As children live in the moment, and invite us to do the same, I begin to realize that they do not yet have resentments. I’m not sure when we begin collecting them, but Adam doesn’t have any yet. By my reckoning, he should already be carrying around a huge bag. In fact it would be easier for me to name people he might resent than those he ought love.  But childlike love doesn’t work that way.  He loves.  Fresh each morning.  That’s it.

Perhaps that what Jesus meant when he encouraged us to become like children if we wish to experience the wonder of the sacred dawning in our lives.  To see the wonder of the blue jay flitting just outside my window, I must be in the moment with my eyes wide open.  When my mind and heart are filled with might-have-beens I missed the beauty that is now.  And maybe, if Adam’s childlike heart is onto something, it’s time to love the people in front of me just as they are.

To be sure, such love leaves us vulnerable to heartache.  To really see the beauty of the world is to be open to it’s pain.  Adam’s body bears witness to the pain. Our protective coatings are well earned and some would say the better part of wisdom. As adults, we can and we must do more to protect vulnerable children who are not yet old enough to protect themselves.

Yet at the same time, as I witness the genuine delight in Adam’s eyes, I realize that he and Jesus are onto something worthy of our attention. For today, my eyes and my heart are open just a wee bit wider.

Kindergarten Lesson #7 Listen

A day late and a dollar short may be a familiar idiom, but it is the kiss of death in classroom management. Yesterday I was sitting in the rocking chair with seven children sitting in front of me beginning a lesson on, of all things, how precious they are. I was waiting for the room to quiet and was musing about the way wackamole is played. One at a time they squeaked and squawked, taking turns offending and making the requisite quiet elusive.

As I later reported the “what happened next”, I could remember only sitting patiently and watching with some bit of shock as Miles and Tommy in unison jumped up and towards each other to exchange blows.  I was close and quick and the skirmish ended almost as quickly as it began, but I was left to wonder how it started.  As the lead teacher asked, “what was the antecedent?”  This is the important clue that may allow a proactive teacher to head off behaviors before the fists connect.  I edit the sentence to add “may” because in truth the best teachers manage classrooms not control them, and the toxic myth of control is what leads to frustration and prevents the kind of management in which we can all thrive.

I know a bit about the myth because it is my fall back.  I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon and into the night wondering how I could have controlled the situation more forcefully.  In fairness, I reasoned, the children need to feel the security of a safe adult clearly in charge.  This is true, but only partially so.

Somewhere near dawn, in that morning hour when if wakened sleep is invariable elusive, I remembered a question shared when I began my work with the children. “Why are you there?” And dearly I hold the answer that also gradually came, “to listen”.  To be sure I have a job description, a number of tasks, and a responsibility to my teammates, but the underlying sense of mission for me in this context is that of open-hearted presence.  As the 4:00am hour turned to the 5:00am and sleep came and went, I found myself holding the call to listen.

What exactly was happening for Miles and for Tommy as I sat in the rocking chair listening to the classroom wackamole?  As I turn back the tape and try to focus more clearly, I remember that one of them yelled at the other for talking, and the other yelled back about the yelling.  That is the point where, had I been more mindful and in the moment, I might have simply walked to them and stood calmly between them.  As I ponder their anxiety in the moments that lead up to their heated exchange and angry fists, I hear simply that: anxiety.  A teacher sternly staring at them while wackamole played all around them added to the anxiety that they carried with them yesterday. Unintentionally but undeniably, I had added to the anxiety which is already too big for their tiny bodies.

A little less naive than I was even a few short weeks ago, I know that today will bring challenges of its own which may well include physical altercations that I wasn’t able to foresee and forestall.  But what is clear, in the early morning calm, is that what I can bring worthy of the children is mindfulness.  In the world in which the children live, drama is easy to come by and my instinct to drink lightly at the trough is probably wise.  What is in short supply for all of us is serenity, the promised peace that passes understanding which comes only with attention in the now.  This is mindfulness, and the children deserve my best effort to practice it.

Before I go, I will listen again to Thich Nhat Hanh inviting me to see the blueness of the sky.  When I am with the children, I will practice seeing them more clearly and deeply.  Practicing peace, we increase the peace in ourselves and those around us.  This is the least I can do, that any of us can do.


Kindergarten Lesson #6: Beware the Ally

Fun Fridays are my nemesis.  Invariably the impending “Fun Friday” brings chastisement from the adults, laments from the children, and chaos in the classroom.  I’m sure that someone finds them fun, but I’ve yet to meet them.  For the innocents, let me explain:

Fun Fridays are the holy grail in behavior-modification settings for children.  Each day the child’s behavior is scored and at the end of the week the tally determines whether the child can participate in the festivities or is consigned to a pile of additional worksheets.  The idea is laudable in that children make choices such that their Fun Friday participation is reflective of their agency.  Unspoken however are a number of variables that include (in no particular order) the subjectivity of the adult assigning the point, the ability of the child to self-regulate regardless of reward, and the desirability of the carrot (namely: Fun Friday).

Fun Fridays in my particular context consist of an afternoon movie.  The selections are varied, from Batman to Arthur to Spy Kids. The challenge for many kids is that their familiarity and named interest is at a level of maturity that often far exceeds their own comfort.  When given a choice for an afternoon movie, one just-turned-nine year old made the surprising request for “Dinosaur Train”, a PBS series recently introduced to the class (and has quickly become a classroom favorite).   For children who’ve grown up too quickly and exist in environments that make adults shudder, the innocence of PBS is actually quite hopeful and reassuring.  Still, the more familiar choices tend to be filled with fighting heroes.  The movies for Fun Friday are usually selected by the teacher and typically fall in the spectrum somewhere between the innocence of PBS and violence of X-Men.

This week’s choice was new to me and engaging, “Hotel for Dogs“.  The story is about a couple of really creative and loving children and their beloved dog.  I was intrigued that the children in the story were in foster care, a reality for many of the children in our class.  I noted the positive role modeling and smiled benevolently.  As I watched the story unfold with the obligatory evil foster parents, I watched as one who had never walked in those shoes.  From my seat of privilege, I saw humor, pluck, great acting and a funny script; and I assumed the children saw the same.

Pretty early in the movie, Tommy called out, “I’m scared.”  Tommy is one of the older boys not given to public displays of tender emotions, yet at his cry not one child disagreed.  Instead of harassment, one child offered encouragement, “It’s ok, close your eyes like me.”  The epiphany for me was painful, what had seemed comic and empowering from my seat was utterly terrifying from the seat of child in the system.  I moved to the center of the room and put my arm on Tommy’s back.  “Is it ok if I sit here with you?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said simply.

The school day ended before the movie and most of the kids left at the chaotic climax where the future of the protagonists hang in limbo.  This is the place in which most of the children’s lives are lived, terrifyingly familiar.  Even from my seat of comfort, the jagged edge of the precipice haunted my weekend.  I talked about the movie with my wife, my son, and anyone else who would listen.  Finally I found the movie online (Amazon’s streaming service) and we watched the movie in it’s entirety so that I could bask in the ending where “they all lived happily ever after”.

As I hold Tommy’s (and his classmates’) fear, I realize that the happy fiction ending would have been small consolation.  The truth is that the system has failed real life children, repeatedly.  Though each day is new and so too their choices, the brutal fact is that some children have fewer choices than others and sometimes no choice is a good one.  For me the movie was a fun comedy about plucky children, for Tommy (and too many of his classmates) the movie makes light of their very frightening reality.

Tommy’s voicing of his fear pulled back the curtain on an important truth about the limits of the ally.  Not having walked in his shoes, I made erroneous assumptions about what is (and isn’t) entertaining.  Had I been a foster child, an orphan, subject to the whims of capricious adults, I too would have been troubled (rather than entertained) by the movie.  As important as allies are (and we are), our value becomes toxic if we fail to recognize the boundaries of our knowing.

Monday begins a new week, and I wonder what would be fun on Friday for Tommy and his classmates.  Perhaps it is a movie, perhaps it might be something different entirely.  In all likelihood, what passes for fun will be as different as the students in the group.  What I learned last Friday, however, is that more important than looking for motivational carrots might simply be honoring the heart of those who do not yet have voice to speak their preference.

For today, I’ll stop planning and start listening.


Kindergarten Lesson #5: Good Days Happen

When I began a high school job waitressing at the local truck stop, I began to parrot language that mother said would “make a sailor blush”. I don’t know much about sailor’s, but I suspect that they have nothing on my young friend Oscar.

Oscar spent an entire recess a few days ago sitting beside me on a log for no apparent reason other than to name his frustrations in a series of expletive deletives. While I tried to listen only to the tenor and offer safe haven, I have to admit that I’ve rarely if ever heard such a graphic articulation of anger.  In fairness, he has plenty to be angry about and the few words that I did offer were simply an affirmation that I believed him about the injustice.  I do.

Oscar is the classic crusty marshmallow, with a heart too tender for the world in which he lives. His shell is feisty with fists barred and a stream of superlatives the likes that would make the proverbial sailor sit up and take notes.  It’s all he has in a world where the adults have simply not been able to live up to their end of the bargain, a world that is not safe and nurturing for a child.

Oscar spent another day recently alternately swinging at me and running away from me. I wasn’t afraid of his fists, but I suspected that I was no match for his young legs and was more comfortable if I was between he and the open door.  It was a very long day.  The only time he seemed to hear me was when I was in his face telling him that I cared too much about him to let him get by with such awful behavior. He’s only nine, but I decided it was time for straight talk. And the straight talk is that his soul is too precious to lose in the wasteland broken hearts locked behind bravado.

For reasons that are unclear to me, Friday was a different kind of day for Oscar. From the very outset his demeanor was different. He kept to himself, which is his norm, but participated in all the activities and I even caught him smiling a time or two. He had a concern and politely asked for my attention. He asked if he could take a lead in an activity, and did so with grace. I asked for his help in another setting and again he rose to the challenge.

It was late in the day when I witnessed a miracle. Another child was frustrated with a direction that I gave and called me an “old lady”. Honestly, the words were just registering in my brain and a smile dancing on my lips when I heard Oscar’s nine year old voice with stern clarity: “Don’t call her an ‘old lady’. She’s a teacher and she deserves your respect.” There stood a defiant Oscar not only modeling but holding accountable. I was speechless.

A little while later I was doing daily point sheets and looked at Oscar’s. Two days ago he had a total of 0. Today it was a perfect 10. Not once was he disrespectful. Not once did he swing his fists or run off or threaten harm. “Oscar,” I said looking over at him with smile, “I’m doing point sheets and I can’t find a single point that you lost today. It looks like a perfect 10. Is that right?” He was silent, but smiling.

Monday may be a different story.  His fists may clench, his feet may bolt, his words may make the sailor blush. But I will hold this perfect 10 close to my heart, and I know he will too. The truth is that bad days happen. The more important truth, though, is that good days happen too.

May 9, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

a Tanya Torres painting found on the Rumi FB page

Children who have no words and shake their fists but show with their eyes the deep beauty of their souls, adults who dedicate their careers and their livelihoods to hearing and honoring and helping the children who hurt, places where humility trumps hubris and humiliation and new grounds of learning emerge; inspirational quotes at just the right moment, a Star Trek apron on my dear one, brilliant sun with the cooling gift of a cloud; recognizing the moment of choice to focus on that which builds rather than rends, watching little ones find comfort practicing butterfly hugs, the indescribable comfort my beloved’s embrace in the first morning light.


Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.