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 #1

Quite by accident I was left in the room alone with the gathering children.  I say by accident because I’m simply a floater, not yet fully trained, and quick to name my place as the extra.  Ready or not though I was the adult in the room and the children were gathering.  The dispute was territorial and it had all the markings of an irascible showdown not unlike we see in the struggle for Jerusalem. And there was really no place to hide.

Seth had been displaced from his desk.  The classroom has 12 desks and when the 13th new student arrived on Monday, Seth drew the imposed hospitality card.  A rather easy-going child who is apparently quite mature, it was probably the path of least resistance.  With his desk given to the new student, Seth spent a displaced Monday on the couch.  This was Tuesday morning, the new student was already settled in Seth’s desk, and Seth had been relocated (again) to the rocking chair.  He was finding difficulty doing his work in a moving vehicle and was on the prowl for a more sustainable perch.

Dominique’s place was theoretically unchallenged but not unchanged, the borders had become malleable.  Not only had Seth’s nearby desk been populated with a bewildered new kid, Dominique’s buddy Josh to the north had been moved to the other side of the room following a Monday afternoon rumble.  In short, all the desks had been shuffled in an imposed attempt to change the social order.  Dominique’s place was uncertain and he reached for a boundary, pushing back and using the couch as part of what would be his new domain.

Seth longed to return to the couch which had been a comfort in his first day of exile but the previously open couch was now under Dominique’s control.  As the two boys each asserted their right to the welcoming space, the furniture between them began to move and fists clenched. My voice from the other side of the room might as well have been from a distant universe and I noted my instinct to run in the opposite direction.  Territorial disputes are always messy and collateral damage is inevitable.

As I approached the two boys, neither was in the mood for a rational conversation with a teacher.  Dominique was in control of the disputed territory and with Seth demanding cessation, Dominique solidified his hold.  Seth may not by typically aggressive, but displacement reaches to core instincts and his are strong.  This was a standoff.  In a miraculous moment, Seth allowed his eyes to connect with mine and his ears to hear my invitation. His better instincts prevailed, he lowered his fists and backed away in exchange for (an albeit temporary) seating at the teacher’s desk.  It was a face-saving prize, not a long-term solution, but the crisis was temporarily averted. With Dominique’s land grab aggression isolated, he could be reeled in and a sentry (read: another adult) placed on the couch to hold the space for Seth’s eventual return.

As I consider a territorial dispute in a therapeutic elementary classroom, I am struck with the transcendent nature of our human conflicts. The description could just as easily have been one of Israel and Palestine or any other number of international skirmishes.  Our need for place (the assurance of shelter) is fundamental, if Maslow is to be believed, and as we continue to push and pull and redefine the borders we will face unrelenting angst.

Meanwhile, as I was pondering the failed land grab by Dominique, Macy had arrived and discovered that her desk had been moved to the center front.  Macy is not known for impulse control and her reaction was swift as the desk flipped, papers scurried and children ducked.  Her hands now folded across her chest, her face in full pout, she dared any of us to respond.  Thankfully another adult had entered with Macy and I was not the peacekeeper called to respond.

Later in the day, I sat on the floor putting together a puzzle with some of the kids.  Macy and Dominique and Seth were all happily playing nearby.  I was aware that the disputed land on which I was now sitting wasn’t, quite frankly, great land.  There was a wrinkle in the carpet that made it impossible for the puzzle to lie flat.  Our frustration was great as we gathered the pieces and they jumped out of location.  Why would this corner have ever been the focus of such hot pursuit?

And then I remembered.  Land disputes are never really about the land.  What is at stake is identity, place, roots…. complicated and messy.  While I have no great wisdom to share when two interests have competing claims to one piece of real estate, what I can offer is compassion as I listen to the genuine cries of grief, the plea for justice, and the yearning for a place to call home.