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.