Kindergarten Lessons – Body Fluids

Let’s talk about pee.

While no one in their right mind would ever choose this topic, no rendering of this escapade with the children could be complete without at least one chapter devoted to the topic. Pee is a part of the human experience and for little ones too often publicly so.  In my classroom of 10, six have peed on my classroom floor (and a couple of more on the playground). Perhaps the abundance of pee is reflective of age (6-8 year olds), perhaps the severe emotional disturbances facing these kids, most likely the steady flow is a combination. Whatever the reasons, I have been well acquainted with body fluids (of all types) this year.

And here’s what I know: it hasn’t killed me, at least not yet.

On the almost-last day of the semester, Tyler pooped in his pants and strutted naked (and poop-smeared) while I attempted to direct him to first wiping and then washing (neither very successful). On the last day of the semester, Tyler got in a verbal altercation with a peer and, as it escalated, he dropped his drawers, grabbed his junk and… (miracle of miracles) he didn’t pee.

Here’s the second thing I know: mercy lives and laughter is healing.

There are a million reasons that a child might pee (or worse) on a classroom floor but I suspect Occam was right. The most likely reason is the simplest: they can. There are few things a child can control and where they leave their bodily fluids is one. As a teacher I can control how I respond, but I don’t get to control the direction of the flow. Like it or not, in this one I am powerless.

Sure, I try bribes. One of my new little guys, Ralph, naps every afternoon and pees at the end of every nap. For a couple of days he was interested in the little cars I promised and actually chose to wake up dry and collect his toy.  Even now I cherish the sweet smile he shared with his hand-held out as he reported: “I didn’t use it on myself.” He was super proud of the first car he earned and (the very next day) the second; but by the third day, choice trumped persuasion. Perhaps in time the rewards will trump the power play, but until then it’s to my advantage to keep a cool head and a bottle of order eliminating disinfectant.

Powerlessness is an essential human experience that none of us can ultimately avoid. We come into, and then out of, this world in a state of dependence. Childhood is fraught with vulnerability and in our adulthood the myth of self-sufficiency sets us up to fail every time. But powerlessness becomes blinding cruelty when children are neglected and, worse, abused. The enormity of the emotional pain suffered by some children is mind numbing and (quite literally) crazy making. And in the face of this powerlessness, some children make the one choice they can: where to pee.

On the one hand, I wish that I could find it in my heart to cheer the modicum of response-ability demonstrated as a child engages in such willful behavior. But let’s be real, sewer systems weren’t designed to hold rose-water and I know that the very storyline of this post is, well, disgusting. What the kids and I both know: pee stinks.

Tragically, for the most vulnerable of children, life does too.

Kindergarten Lessons: The Greenless Child

As I sit in the Sunday morning birdsong and ponder the sensations of the week, I am struck by the significance of one unlikely hug. It was quite unrehearsed and as silent as the child who surreptitiously slid beside to me to share it. Even in the moment, I was surprised and even touched. For the briefest of moments I turned my attention to him and said a quiet but heartfelt “Thank you.” And then he was gone.

As I hold that moment in the quiet of this morning, I realize that I had been introduced to this child long before he was born. Back on the other side of my adult life I enjoyed a collection of church poems written Ann Weems. Mostly happy poems with a slight edge, there was one that settled into my heart as a challenging omen: Greenless Child.
I watched her go uncelebrated into the second grade,
A greenless child,
Gray among the orange and yellow,
Attached too much to corners and to other people’s sunshine.

As I hold Friday’s brief and silent hug, I realize that it came from the greenless child. He is the child who has spent a semester in my classroom hiding under the desk, mumbling under his breath, screaming only (but frequently) when the classroom noise overcomes him, with a single sentence mantra: “You’re not listening to me!” Occasionally he’ll mumble a curse and even more occasionally strike a peer or even staff to gain attention, but most often he’s under his desk with his headphones trying to block out the chaos of the world.

And with a classroom of children throwing desks, I confess that I was grateful to let this one child quietly hide.  The challenge is that in his hiding he was neither happy nor healing. His accusation that I wasn’t listening wasn’t altogether untrue.

Midway through the semester, I realized that I needed help to connect with this child and asked a colleague who professed to enjoy this greenless child. I needed to learn to listen to him.  When my colleague referenced the child’s wit and sense of humor I was genuinely confused, thinking that we were talking about different children. But I began to watch and listen with new openness.

I’d like to tell you that I fell in love with the child, I was able to now discern his mumbled sentiments, and that he became a participating member of our class. Not so much. But there were times when I could hear his words, days when he did come out and participate, and moments when I was undeniably filled with a high regard for this him. In this child too I could finally see and celebrate the sacred.

As the day opened on Friday, I was walking with he and one other student to breakfast. The other child was on a roll of antagonistic and mean statements and when I successfully ignored him, he turned his verbal insults toward the greenless child. Now more in tune, I effortless dismantled the aggressors barbs, noting the genuine gifts of the child demeaned. “He is funny,” I noted, “with a great (if quiet) sense of humor and,” I chided, “if you don’t know that you haven’t bothered to get to know him.” I was, of course, talking to myself. But the mean rant abated and the otherwise greenless child gave me a look of wonderment. It was later that morning that he offered the stealth hug.

Now on the third day, listening to both the spoken and unspoken, I begin to realize that the child dismissed as greenless might be a rich and royal purple. A greenless child is only deficient if we insist on a world of blue and yellow. In a world that needs red, celebrates purple, and delights in orange, we need the one we would discount as greenless.

The only deficiency was my limited vision. I am grateful for this child’s healing teach because, quite frankly, we need every bit of the rainbow.

Kindergarten Lessons – Trauma

The very hardest part of my job is not the kids and not my colleagues. Currently I work with a great team of adults and when in the emotional security of my own home it’s very clear to me that the children are sacred beings truly struggling to process trauma that is beyond their ability to process. The very hardest part of my job is facing the me that comes out when pushed beyond my own ability to cope. It is not a me that I wish to own, not a me that I wish to acknowledge, but is a me that I must face (or choose to deny) daily in this setting. This me brings tears to my eyes… and it is this me that I must come to face, own, and love before she too can find healing and peace.

For seven hours each day, I am in a self-contained classroom with 10 little boys and one other adult. Occasionally we go out together for meals (twice each day), PE (daily) and recess; always we travel together. Occasionally another adult is in our classroom for a short time or takes a child out for special services.  On really good days, I can slip out to the bathroom and turn in daily attendance (usually while the kids are in PE); on bad days I forget to drink water and go home dehydrated, grateful that I didn’t have to pee.  Most of our day is spent in the classroom and most of my time is spent catching flying shoes (and pencils and blocks), restraining children to keep them from pummeling one another, and trying to ignore the constant stream of obscenities that flow from any number of sources.  And on very rare moments, I teach reading and math and science.

I would like to write about the bulk of the day when I actually do feel and practice remarkable patience and genuinely high regard for my students. This is the part of the story that I would like to remember.  While it isn’t my goal to be Michelle Pfeiffer (read: the heroine of “Dangerous Minds”), swooping into the chaotic space to sprinkle love-dust that charms the children into new realities of hopefulness, it is my intention to meet the children where they are and without judgement. My task is simply (monumentally) to offer an educational opportunity for children whose behaviors are so egregious that (already in kindergarten) they have been exiled from the public school system.

The problem is that no one is addressing the cause of the behaviors.

The challenges that my children face are far outside my realm of expertise and control; severe and generational poverty, prolonged patterns of abuse and neglect, trauma of every imaginable sort and many beyond imagining. While I am expected to “modify” behaviors, I have no access or tools to address the causes of the behaviors. Quite frankly, every one of my children has a legitimate cause to tantrum and the louder they scream the more certain I am that they have a will to survive. They will need it. To thwart the lament is to disarm the survival skills that they most certainly need.

Yet in the meantime, the children are gathered together into one room with two adults and they have uncovered and are now trampling on my last tender nerve.

I’ve never been a big believer in imposed consequences, which is probably good because my kids, lacking all manner of impulse control, have already been consequenced out of schools and homes and any sort of normal privilege afforded to children. But what to do when the patience wears thin and one more child pushes one more button?  Consequences may be ineffective but safety is paramount and my need for some degree of control is my Achilles heel.

My job description includes physical prompts and redirections and I’ve been encouraged to be quicker to intervene with negative behaviors even as I’m coached to notice and praise the positive ones. The more “successful” I am in confronting the misdeeds (and literally corralling the room), the more I loathe the person that I see. I would like to tell you that I didn’t yell at Michael on Friday, but what was lacking in volume was present in tone. I would like to tell you that I guided him back to his seat, but when he refused to comply and laughed in my face, dragged might be more fair description. I wasn’t my best self.

Perhaps it is worthy to note the places where my spirit breaks. The constant whine of Charles’ foul-mouthed tantrums that mark the start of each new day, the backward spin of Carlton who’d been making such progress and is now inexplicably falling apart, or the tantrums that accompany Donnell’s almost daily toileting escapades (read: not toilet trained). As I type I realize that there is no one cause, no one Achilles heal, no one place where my spirit needs shoring. The challenge is the enormity and constancy of the barrage.

Dealing with trauma is in itself traumatizing.  Perhaps it is also true to say that the children strip away the mask and lie bare the wounded healer that is at my core. Beneath layers of practiced calm and grounded presence lies a child who is herself very tender, a little girl who has a strong need for order and a fear of chaos. This little girl, though unfamiliar, is fierce.  Much like the little boys that fill my classroom, this little girl within has a strong will to survive. I wonder how much of my adult energy has been spent hiding from her and how different my life might be if I found ways to befriend her.  Already she’s helped me to find more direct patterns of communication and inspired me to experience wonder. But like the little boys in my classroom, she needs to know that the adults are present and providing safe boundaries; without that reassurance, she is in full-scale rebellion herself.

For today, I take a moment to acknowledge that my heart hurts. I rehearse the small strategies that our team identified before leaving for the weekend.  Mostly I consider the upside down truth that in our vulnerability we find strength, in our breaking we find wholeness, in our embrace of the questions we let loose of the answers that keep us trapped.  Knowing this to be true, I know that on the other side of this strange current is a gentle stream.

And I give thanks for the resilient little girl who lives deep within, tantrums and all.

Kindergarten Lessons – Better than Skittles

My classroom closets are filled with candy and trinkets as I shamelessly use every possible form of “positive behavior management”. No piece of plastic crap can compete, however, with the power of relationship. Many years ago James Fowler, building on Kohlberg and Piaget before him, pointed out that while our most primitive ethical choices may may be based on cost and/or reward, our more significant and lasting work must be based on deeper values. Inasmuch as my kids stay seated for a reign (or rain) of Skittles, their attention is at best weak and invariably focused on the coming of the next sugar high. Occasionally I see evidence of a child finding inner satisfaction and even tangible evidence of their connection with others.

One day last week we were coming back from PE and Sam was, as usual, jumping up and down and tapping on the wall. I looked back, made eye contact, and reminded Sam that in the hallway, “our feet are on the ground, our hands are at our sides, and our mouths are quiet”. Sam nodded most seriously and we continued a few hundred feet. As I turned around in the corner of my eye I could see Sam starting to leap towards the wall. Facing forward, he caught my glance and then, miraculously, caught himself. Sam made a different choice not because I was going to punish him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice not because I was going to reward him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice because I believe in him and he wants to please me. And he did. I stopped what I was doing to celebrate his great choice.

Psychology students study the effects of rewards on classroom management and I work closely with some great young professionals studying and working in the field of positive behavioral coaching. While the positive energy of these young adults have had an incredibly great influence on our community, I wonder about the strategies themselves. Of course children, like all animals, can be trained to ding the bell on cue. But are these successes the ones that are lasting? Are these the strategies that will help the child understand their power in the face of an adrenalin rush? Are these tools that will transcend our particular setting? Training a child to behave for a reward (or worse, to avoid a consequence) is definitionally limited. Necessary to survive the day, perhaps, but totally inadequate to face the world and make meaning of real life.

On Friday, Wilson arrived having had another difficult bus ride. This time the driver sent Wilson in with a written report which described both his physically aggressive and sexually inappropriate behaviors. I read the note and felt at a loss for words. I called Wilson to the back room and sat down. As Wilson stood in front of me, I handed him the note and said simply, “read this to me.” Wilson began reading in his typically defiant mode. As he read further, having to speak aloud his behaviors with my disappoint silently facing him, he wilted. He stopped when he reached the most egregious part; head hanging he shuffled silently back to his seat where he put his head down and cried. No additional words were added. I was astounded to realize the power of simple relational accountability. No consequence in my repertoire would have elicited the level of remorse that he exhibited in that moment. No plastic trinket could deliver the powerful teaching that we encountered together.

To be sure, I’ll continue to buy Skittles and plastic trinkets. I’ll keep the charts and the reward systems for all of these tools serve a purpose and often buy time until relationships can be established. The real successes, however, are the ones without tangible rewards, where children discover that they have the power to make choices and even more miraculously that there are relationships worthy of their choosing.

Kindergarten Lessons: Looking Deeper

Even in my mind’s eye, Seth is furiously chewing his lip with furrowed brow. He’s small child who’s just turned seven, but his tense muscles are strong and when his fists swing there are bruises. He is quick to tell you that he is bad, that his favorite character is Michael Myers (Halloween), and that no one wants him.  Perhaps there are grains of truth in his litany, certainly his behaviors are intolerable as he pummels young and old with his angry fists and vicious words. But this is such an incomplete and misleading description.

Seth is also a remarkably bright child who looks for logic and documents patterns. He is a tender soul who reaches for hugs and chooses the puzzle with puppies and kittens.  He is articulate and charming and absolutely adorable.  Except when he’s not.

In our team meeting we talked about how Seth navigated the week and I mentioned his agitated state. I’ve learned to watch, to be prepared to keep both he and the other children safe.  Not his natural state, he has a visible cycle with a gathering of steam. A watchful adult can often intervene to redirect and de-escalate with careful timing and respectful interaction. With a room full of children and a steep learning curve, I have too often missed the window of opportunity.

As I talked about Seth’s agitation, the therapist on our team, a warm and loving professional, looked thoughtful and then offered, “he’s so very anxious. Have you seen his brow furrow?” Her gentle words were disarming and I mused at the also-true read of the situation. A child who is anxious may become agitated and then perhaps violent.  For our child, the pattern is both constant and consistent. I’ve been trying to read the agitation to prevent the violence, and have had occasional success in that endeavor, but what if we tended the anxiety that lies yet deeper?

While this work, of course, belongs between the therapist and the child, a respectful understanding of the anxiety shapes my compassion and thereby my interactions with Seth. Rather than trying to control his agitation, I am more inclined to bring empathy to the enterprise, offering whatever balm I have for the anxiety as I redirect the agitation and hopefully prevent the violence.

All along Seth has communicated as directly and clearly as a seven-year old can. He reports with remarkable clarity the things that he sees and feels and the underlying causes. Tragically they are simply too big even for my adult sized heart.  As I consider the sources of his anxiety with my own heart less guarded, I cannot help but see that his emotions are tragically commensurate with his situation. While his behaviors are outrageous and completely unacceptable, the anxiety that produces them is totally appropriate. The culprit is not the child but rather the life events that are traumatizing him. This child has, quite simply, been given more than he can bear.

My own fight-flight instinct is to righteous anger at a world that would hurt children, but I’ve already wasted too much of my life in this endless spin. We have no control of the life events for this little boy. It is our job to help him find (or create) an inner strength by which he can survive. We cannot do this for him, but we can bear witness to the struggle and point to the incredible gifts that are his own. Our therapist says that we can help him to write a new inner message, one in which he is worthy, loved and lovable.  We do this one day at a time and trust that over the days that become weeks and then months he will begin to claim this message as his own.

Although not my class, the emotion of this stock photo captures the collaborative spirit that I witnessed. Beautiful.

In the meantime as I watch him chew on his lip, I reach for the iPad to redirect his mind and for today it works.

He eagerly takes the toy and puts his head down as his fingers fly.  Just five minutes later I watch as he is now in a huddle of boys building virtual Legos together, sharing two iPads cooperatively, happily. Brow unfurled, lip no longer chewed, wow.

This is the child he came into the world to be.

I sit on the rug, mesmerized and holding the moment. There will be other moments not so hopeful, this I know. All the more I cherish this one in which his spirit shines bright.  It is so very very good.

Kindergarten Lessons: Holiday Grit

Pulling from my bag of religious education tricks, I danced through this holiday season in my elementary classroom teaching about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas (with a nod to the Solstice).  My kids were pretty open but clueless as we talked about Hanukkah’s story of a weary battle and a wee bit of oil that spelled a miracle (they were most intrigued with the soldier coloring page).  Again they were open but blank slates as we talked about Kwanzaa and the importance of honoring tradition (though they made beautiful Kinara).  When we came to Christmas, every one of them had working knowledge from which to draw: Santa.

The beauty of Santa, of course, is that he comes not only with a bag of gifts but also with a list of naughty and nice.  Though none of us would wish to be found on the naughty side, we all take comfort that our nemesis will ultimately be held accountable.   This promise is a comfort to those who experience oppression and no child is without some taste of that vulnerability.

When reading about Christmas on the Arthur ( holiday site, however, it was the story of Jesus’ birth and not Santa that was noted and my kids were (without exception) confused.  Who is Jesus? And why is his birth important?  Without a second thought I shifted into storytelling mode and delighted in sharing with them the story of the first Christmas.  We were all reveling in the sweetness of the story when one little boy made the connection between this celebratory baby’s birth and the dude that hangs on crosses around people’s necks.  He checked for clarification.  My kids, completely unchurched but wise in the world, were curious about the connection between the baby Jesus of Christmas and the dead Jesus on the cross. When I confirmed that the identity the kids were mortified.  “But why?”

Removed from the confines of the church, aware that I was in private school teaching public school children, I was thinking fast on my feet about what would (and would not) be helpful to say.  I noted that the Romans killed Jesus, that he was a political dissident.  My little ones (ages 6-8) were clueless about the Romans, never mind dissidents political or otherwise.  As I reached for familiar Sunday School teachings, I realized that all of them smack of God-ordained suffering which is not a helpful message for trauma-recovering children.

Much of my discomfort lies in our traditional whitewashing of the Jesus narrative, a practice that is both antithetical to the story and unhelpful for my children.

As we light nativity scenes on civic lawns across our nation today, the power and passion of that story has been lost.  Set in context and viewed at least somewhat objectively, our Jesus narrative is a direct (if comical) affront to the stories of the day.  In a land where it was not uncommon for gods to cavort with humans, creating heroes in their wake, the Jesus-birth narrative is a parody.  Instead of golden nets we find a feeding trough; instead of adoring elephants, there are stupid sheep.  Neither Buddha nor Hercules, our hero is born destitute and quickly finds himself on the run from the law.  Thus our story unfolds, flaunting the dominant cultural narratives.  In its earliest incarnations the story of Jesus’ birth was quite literally an “F@*# you!” message to Roman culture.

The answer to my children’s question lies in the upside down offense of the Jesus-birth story, not the sweet little baby version.  Kissing Fish writes: “You don’t crucify people for telling others to be nice to one another, and to politely participate in the dominant culture.” The Jesus story, at least the pre-emasculated version, isn’t about being nice or polite.  The Jesus story is a retelling of the more ancient story of the prophets in which the source of life dares to care about how it is that we do (and don’t) share justice with one another.  The Jesus story is rich with the message of repentance that skips the worthless task of groveling and focuses on building lives of just compassion. The story dares to challenge the egocentric imperialism that gutted the Roman Empire and lays waste to our own.

And the cost to such truth telling is often life itself and so we edit the story to make it nice.  This same domestication has happened with all of our hero stories and was profoundly evident as the world paused this month to honor a remarkably nice Nelson Mandela.  Gone was the grit, missing was the prophecy, celebrated was the conciliatory spirit without the tough love that gave it power.

The bitter irony, of course, is that my little ones are with me precisely because they have not been nice. In the face of cruelty, they have raged.  The gritty part of the hero stories that we hide are the chapters that would give a righteously angry child a toe hold with which to connect and grow.

When my little ones dare to rage against the injustice of their lives, they are often quite literally expelled from both homes and schools.  In a culture where we place a high premium on nice, the insolence that my little ones spew is categorically unwelcome. In fairness, the rage is often misguided though well founded.  Never have I even imagined a group of young children more traumatized by adults pledged to care for them.  Add to the human failings a sprinkling of organic mental illness and it’s a pretty toxic mix.  Unfortunately the rage comes out seemingly unbidden and often directed toward those attempting to be helpful.  The language of nice is pretty lost in this context, for both student and teacher.

To be candid, I am grateful for the rage that bears witness to a spirit fighting back.  Nevertheless, I spend my days trying to teach “nice” and the emasculated version of the story would better suit my purposes as a classroom teacher.  Herein lies the dilemma: a cowed spirit is easier to manage in our American public education system but such a spirit cannot soar.

So which version of our heroes will we teach?



Kindergarten Lesson #10 – Differences

When my daughter was a toddler, she inquired the whereabouts of the “chocolate girl” that sometimes visited next door.  As I heard her description, I felt a wave of conflicting emotions.  She was in awe of the older child, the granddaughter of our neighbors, and was identifying her idol by that which made her distinct in our otherwise racially homogenous world.  Chocolate is a treasure for a toddler (and perhaps all of us), and the descriptor was not offered or intended as a slight.  Yet to identify a child simply by skin color, especially for a white child to identify an brown child thusly, is both offensive and unacceptable.  I tried to engage in a non-dramatic but direct conversation about difference and respect and even race in America, but even in the moment I was quite certain my words were inadequate.

Likewise I found myself with way too many words and none of them helpful when one of the children this week gaped at the size of a new child in our school and loudly exclaimed, “He’s fat!”  The simple fact is that the new child is many sizes larger than his peers of similar age.  The scientific term, morbidly obese, is no less endearing than the playground taunt “fat!”

The wonderment of our differences isn’t lost on children and we would be wise to acknowledge our own wonderment.  When we see ourselves both in similarity and contrast to our peers we instinctively measure up (or down).  Some differences are awe inspiring, some make us feel false (and dangerous) pride. The real danger in assessing our differences lies when we try to assign value accordingly.

A few days earlier I’d had a conversation with the children about differences that we see in the lunchroom, specifically the stemming behaviors displayed by the children with autism.  Jumps, claps, and screams are commonplace and disconcerting if you’re new to them.  In time it’s part of the ambiance of the place, but truly it’s unsettling to the newbie.  Not surprisingly some of the children, taking note of difference, began first to point and then to tease.  In our classroom discussion, we talked about difference and respect, naming the behaviors that were unusual to us and perhaps even uncomfortable.  We talked about respectful responses and the children had good ideas.  While subsequent lunch hours have not been tease-free, the frank discussion has empowered both student and teacher to redirect more quickly and respect grows.

If teaching is encouraging wonderment, if I daily continue to encourage children to use the biggest word of all, look!, our human differences are hard to hide.  The fact is that one of the children is a size quite miniature and the new boy many sizes larger than the others.  Skin tones, vernacular patterns, body shapes and sizes, hair textures, family configurations, academic abilities, all of these vary quite widely in our little world.  Mindfulness invites us to encounter and respect the fullness of our diversity.

But how is it that I can take note of difference in ways that are respectful?

Unhelpful are the common attempts to teach children to be grateful for their higher value in the face of difference.  When a sentence begins with “you are so lucky” or “you should be grateful”, beware.  When we use difference to position ourselves, we have made a dangerously wrong turn. Our recognition of our differences are important, but we can know that we’ve missed the mark if such furthers a feeling of separation.

Helpful was an act of compassion shared in our class yesterday by Miles when Sam’s behaviors had left him ostracized and othered. No one wants to stand in line next to the child that is falling apart and the class had pretty much closed ranks yesterday at lunch. I was considering my options, still holding an anxious Sam’s hand, when Miles stepped out of line and said, “I’ll stand with Sam.”  Together the two moved to the back of the line.  They shared lunch hour together and I watched in wonderment as Sam engaged in age appropriate conversations with a peer.  They both had fun, together. When Miles stepped out of line, both he and Sam experienced the true gift of our difference: we are better together.

A key to the dream shared by Martin Luther King, Jr. is that each of the children are equally valued, no one elevated above the other and no one left to trudge through the leavings.  To teach the dream to our children is to allow them to show us their individual wonder and uniqueness, and to foster recognition of the same in every one of their peers.  To bring the dream alive is to create environments where lifting one child in celebration doesn’t come with a competitive edge; there need not be a loser for every winner and the dream invites us to consider that if anyone loses none of us really win.  To live the dream is to stand strong on our human legs as we marvel in the birds flight, grateful for both.

But the dream begins with simple and seemingly random acts of compassion that bridge our differences, acts like Miles shared by offering his hand to Sam.  For this most of all I am grateful.

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.