Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars


There is something really special about the forwardness of kindergarteners. They are always going outward in the burst of their beliefs—only to do a candle’s dance at the breeziest response. Their honesty is often halfway to the truth.

As five and six year old human beings, they typically straddle a threshold of development between the fluid and the firm, the personal and the social, the intuitive and the factual, the feeling and the concept. They live in an era of personal cartography, drawing clear-cut boundaries on the newly charted maps of their own worlds—little Alexanders of cognition. Indeed, even though it’s usually at this time that a child will leave the nebulous but porous realm of “parallel play” and enter the wide, definite, transactional world of “socialization,” the egocentrism is still strong, and other egos come as a shock. Sometimes, the confrontation with another “me” can have the smack of scandal. Why, with the entire world still throbbing out to me, should this stranger-kid stab it with their standing in my place in line? Thus, still overflowing with their first four years’ intuition, they lap and splash over the levies they have started which will form those narrow canals we call “learning.” Sometimes, when the storm is just right, they fairly wash it over with themselves. Believe me: as an early childhood educator, I have done some wading. A couple times a month I may be baptized by the flood.

But this liminality in kindergarteners provides for so many strange new things, some of them baffling, some of them wondrous.

My students often come up with language I could never think to write under any mind-altering influence, bottle, pill, pipe, or sleep. My mind is too “developed” in its place, too scaffolded by social expectations, to fuse the far-between at a second’s notice.

For instance, the other day, I asked one of my students to give a title for her mixed-materials construction. She blinked, and said, “The Bomb’s Tent.”

The phrase had the tidy demolition of an Emily Dickinson lyric.[1] The same explosion of associations, the same cohabitation of severest contraries. What, after all, could a bomb have to do with a tent? For me, the words have the effect of found poetry, and thus my question is inductive, and not rhetorical at all.[2]

Another student, with maybe greater promptitude, named her creation “The Happy House of Doom.”

Is such a place grotesque or ironic, or the site of the wedding of both these qualities?

And yet another student: “The Most Dangerest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in the Whole City.”

Whatever else it may be, this threat is both utter and survivable. It is also an exemplary expression of kindergarten thinking, which often takes the form of mostly harmless extremes.

This extremity is what I mean when I say “forwardness.” At around five or six, the roundabout tide of egocentrism has mysteriously changed directions, and all of the child’s concern begins to flow outwards. There is such an eagerness to be a part of a society, no matter how little, whether it be the hectic collaboration of a game of tag or the quicksilver bond of a single friendship. But, as many theorists point out, this stage of understanding is still intuitive in its outward focus, and thus children at this age will “think about the way something looks instead of rational[ly] thinking” about its causes for being the way it appears.[3] This is definitely true: kindergarteners have a way of seizing on appearances and turning them over to the world in hasty triumph; they have caught a fugitive epiphany.

Once, on a particularly tired Friday, we had an assembly. During the speaker’s droning, a girl turned to me, watched me, and then earnestly tapped my arm.

“Nate.[4] Hey Nate? Nate,” she whispered.

I leaned in, slowly, and whispered back, “Yes?”

“Your eyes are bloodshotted.” She stared at them. She didn’t truly “look me in the eye”—she stared, more truly, at the eyes proper, in arrested wonder. As if they were gold coins. “They’re bloodshotted, Nate.” As if I could stare at the treasures too. Look what I found, Nate: two bloodshotted pearls!

“Hmm. Okay, thank you.”

Honestly, I could fill this whole piece with the much-too-forward comments I’ve received about my appearance alone.

One of them comes from that immortal question, “How old are you?” Some children ask this blankly, as if even they are not sure what it means, and are seeking my help in making the world a little more connected. But others ask this question quizzically, with a maturely arched eyebrow, as if my age were some sort of smuggling into their youthful sphere.

In my callower days, I used to answer with a tone of Markan mystery[5], “And how old do you think I am?” only to find their faith was fully formed, and they were ready to proclaim it.

“You look like a daddy or a grandpa. You’re a grandpa.”

“No! He’s—”

“Fourteen!”

“No, guys, he’s—”

“Umm . . . fifty? I mean fifty-nine!”

“No! Guys! He’s . . . uhhhhhh . . . ”

“How many gram-kids do you have?”

This lively plurality would very quickly turn into a cacophony, and that would soon turn into a wriggling, roiling mass, and so I would be forced to flatten the whole sea down with the truth.

“I’m twenty-seven.”

On the particular occasion I’m recalling, one boy, having heard my answer, raised his face heavenward and let out a long, Jobian groan. “You’re twenty-seven? I thought you were fifty-nine like my dad. That’s how old he is.” He buried his bespectacled face in his hands. It was a kind of crisis for him, apparently.

Over the years I have grown a little wiser and a little wily when it comes to my apparent age.

This past year, during centers, one boy called out to me from his table across the room.

“Nate! Nate! Hey Nate?”

“Hmm, I don’t see any quiet hands anywhere, so I guess I’ll just . . .”

The boy, hearing my cue, thrust up his hand, which he proceeded to flap like a flag in a hurricane, while down below he wriggled in his seat and watched me with desperate, gritted teeth.

“Oh! Yes, [child’s name]?”

I walked over.

“Um . . . Nate.”

“Yeah?”

“Why don’t you have any kids?”

“Because I’m not old enough to have kids.”

“You’re old!”

I blinked at him. “Maybe old enough outside, but not inside.”

What? How old are you inside? No!—Outside!” (As if the other question were the correct answer.) “How old are you outside?” 

“By now, somewhere between a daddy and a grandpa.”

What?

“I’m bigger than twenty-five, but lower than sixty-five.”

“Wait! I don’t know what that is!”

So I handed him a number chart. (It was a slow day, and we could always use number practice.)

Of course, that didn’t stop the child from constantly checking in with me about his guesses (and I didn’t really intend it to). But as it turned out, that wasn’t the question he most wanted answered.

“So—Nate!—you don’t have any kids?”

No, like I told you, I do-not-have-kids.”

“Yes you do!” he exclaimed, pointing at me as if he’d discovered something. “You have us!” He flailed his arm around at the class, then let it go to swing into his side. He stood there watching, his arm dangling.

“I . . .”

He watched me like an owl, as if he’d finally, truly found me out.

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that he knew how parents worked; I knew he knew whose kid he was. But in an effective sense, for all appearances’ sake, I was a primary grownup in his life—in all their lives: for five days a week, at least, the adult of eight of their roughly sixteen waking hours.

I took a breath, feeling his words like a heavy mantle on my shoulders.

Sometimes, I thought, these kids can really hit home in a way that adults ca—

“So you don’t need to have kids! You have me!”

How lovely, and how self-absorbed.

I hasten to say that this self-absorption is a natural, necessary, and therefore, in its place, an entirely positive thing. It really depends upon how you look at the self. Indeed, it is the latent egocentrism of five- or six-year-olds that drives these children to understand the world. Without their selves, they really wouldn’t have the world. Their souls[6] would starve if they didn’t have such a joy in fending for themselves. At least in my experience, children this age are hungry heroic hunters of knowledge–if we let them be.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this great impulse can become greedy and grubbing. Writing from the tail-end of the school year, I certainly have seen lots of horsing and scavenging of knowledge.

At one of our community meetings we were discussing gratitude, the prompt being, “What are you thankful for?” A teacher called on the first student, and the boy slowly lowered his hand, blinked a few times, and said, “I’m thankful . . . that the teachers always call on me first when I raise my hand.” You can imagine the murder of other hands and voices that flocked up to snatch away the truth for themselves. The boy, meanwhile, smiled at us teachers with the new benevolence he’d found for himself to wear.

I have also found that for kindergarteners facts have an irresistible allure, because they are easy to handle and offer up—they are easy to possess as “mine.” “I knew it too! Me too!” “I said it first!”

Conversely, I have seen a fair number of children collapse into their soon-to-be-tear-filled hands because they had misunderstood the daily schedule. (Today we are having snack before the pumpkin patch?! Oh dear God I was wrong, I was so, so wrong!) Again, it was a kind of crisis of faith in themselves.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge that kindergarteners face is one of confidence—specifically, when the outside information seems to overwhelm the inside certitude. Because they are so outwardly driven; because the need for connection is so strong; because they have such an eye for appearances; and because the world of details is so starkly emergent, kindergarteners tend to cultivate whole fields of comparisons. I knew a child who at four used “best” as a synonym for “favorite”; therefore, he had many “bests” in his life: his best food, his best superhero, his best park, his best shoes, his best marble. But when he got to kindergarten his use of “best” underwent a comparative change: the adjective became something only one person could be. Consequently, he had a love-hate relationship with soccer, and board games were a life-or-death situation for his ego.

One of my students—the very same who tried to convince me he was all the child I’d ever need—has had some considerable challenges writing and drawing. He is our youngest student, and so his skills are less developed—but only in comparison with his older classmates; and yet by natural talent he is our greatest critic. As with “self-absorbed,” I do not necessarily think this quality a bad thing—just as I do not think “critic” is the only word for it. He is excellent at noticing fine details. Unfortunately, he is exceptional at noticing his own flaws.

During our “Eagle Study,” students drew their “Best Eagle Drawing.” This was the final project in a months-long study of one topic—the bird in question—through multiple approaches—reading, writing, drawing, ceramics, natural materials constructions, field trips, dramatic play—and the teachers intended this last eagle drawing to be the happy culmination of all the learning our students had done. Students would look at the final expression of their learning and see how far they’d come. They would see their own personal best.

But as I was walking around the classroom, I noticed this same self-critical student squirming fitfully in his seat, until he eventually hunched forward with his tousled head lolling on the table.

I came over and asked if everything was okay.

He slowly rolled his head sideways and creaked up into the air:  “Nate . . . I’m bad at myself.”

Knowing this child all school year, I had fully expected him not to be comparing himself with himself. I had fully anticipated that those more conventional and clear iterations of toes and talons by other students would snatch away his sense of success. But I had not been prepared for him feeling devoured. I’m bad at myself.

Indeed, I find that the most formidable challenge I face often comes from this . . . whatever it is. Maybe it’s that they are, at this stage little literalists, of the book of life. Maybe it’s simply that the eye can see too fast what the mouth and hand can only slowly sound and scratch out. A pencil is such a narrow, meager thing compared to sight, which, for all of the selfhood that floods it, I really ought to call vision.

I think this is why I have come to value this age-group so much: because behind the half-truths and inside the not-quites is a spiritedness beyond mere celerity. Sometimes, because of their blindness to social nicety—to cues to stop; to the silent gossip that the eyes are heir to; to the very real provisions for humiliation within every community—kindergarteners can still see a clear path to speaking for themselves. They are a little like prophets to themselves, constantly hearing the call of their Person, unable to cease from their jealous pronouncements. Indeed, they would have what Heschel calls a “breathless impatience with injustice.” were they not so preternaturally gifted with gusts. In the five- or six-year-old, the cloud of hungry unknowing meets with the incisive scribal hand, and an extra-human language is born.

Once, when we were about to play a game of “Cats and Mice,” one child raised her hand and announced:

“Well—um—just so you know, I’m not a mouse, or a cat—I’m a pop star, and I’m pretty rockin’. But I’m kind.”

Most of my students have a frenetic love of this game, because it is a stage on which the might be “best.” But this child was not interested in the least in such an appellation. She wanted to be what she already was: a pop star.

For this child, a pop star was not yet a person of accomplished self-absorption–an “idol”–but rather a creature of sanguine expressive power. This was for her the best way to be full of herself.
With the help of her friends (and a teacher or two), this child built a whole stage, including a curtain, for her and her friends to take turns singing for each other, but mostly for themselves. The words they sing are often garbled, but the voices they use are always clear.

Someday these children will hear someone laugh at their songs, at their words, at the dances they keep in their steps. Already they have seen that not all laughter is happy for everyone, and someday they will see that not all smiles are kind. But I hope that their response is something like Arnold Lobel’s Camel, who continues to dance despite her scoffing peers:

“I must tell you frankly,” said a member of the audience, “as a critic and a spokesman for this group, that you are lumpy and humpy. You are baggy and bumpy. You are, like the rest of us, simply a camel. You are not and never will be a ballet dancer!”

“How very wrong they are!” said the Camel. “I have worked hard. There can be no doubt that I am a splendid dancer. I will dance and dance just for myself.”

“That is what she did,” Lobel writes, and “[i]t gave her many years of pleasure.”


Because the truth is we are all on-going Camels. Our aspects together form an astonishing mixture, as if we were made by committee. But the things we choose to make ourselves happy speak volumes about who we truly are. It is the infrequently fathomed truth beneath the flat formations of facts, that we are better than “best,” because, in a deep sense, we mean the world to ourselves.
Notes

[1] Coincidentally, in one of her poems, ED writes of the soul as “danc[ing] like a bomb.”

[2] The phrase seems to convey a thing of the utmost human destruction dwelling in one of the smallest human habitations. Or is it that the bomb in the range of its combustion has created, for the most fleeting time, its own kind of transient dwelling place between home and whatever final destination might await us?

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_development

[4] In case you are wondering, at progressive schools like mine it is usually customary for students to call teachers by their first names. As with so many progressive educational approaches, the reason for this “custom” (or lack of it, to some) is largely a philosophical position further confirmed by research: children will be generally more comfortable, trusting, and therefore engaged with their environment if the grownups around them do not separate themselves with titles historically intended to formalize hierarchical relationships. Much of the education we current grownups grew up with, and much of the education we still have in public schools, comes down to us from a Victorian model of teaching, which in turn based much of its structure on military order and discipline. (Think of all of the different ways kids are taught to fall into formation at the sound of a whistle or bell: the walking or standing in one line or two, and all of those squadrons of desks.) Progressive educators have found that there is much to this older, regimented style of teaching that is much too teacher-centered to prove beneficial to the child. This is much of what historically grounds the phrase “child-centered education.”

[5] Mark 8:29.

[6] That arcane word for consciousness.

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