Friday, December 07, 2018

Those Lazy Millennials

Recently, I found myself in a dinner party conversation with a trio of professional women, all about my age, childless, and apparently with an axe to grind regarding the youth of today. The gist of their collective complaint, one I figure they've regularly shared amongst friendly ears, was that "millennials" were "lazy," "entitled," "selfish," and easily distracted by superficial things. It was the age old whinge of the fuddy duddy, one that goes back at least as far as the dawn of the first Agricultural Revolution when our Neolithic ancestors made the tragic mistake of leaving our hunter-gatherer life behind. These women aren't the first, nor will they be the last, to shake their boney fists at the generation behind them in unfair and ill-informed castigation, so in the spirit of keeping the peace I tried to hold mine, not nodding or even smiling, but striving to quietly endure until the conversation turned to other topics.

As the parent of one of these young people, I've found that nothing could be more unsupported than these peevish gripes of the aged. Most of the "millennials" I know are bright and thoughtful, open-minded and caring, interested in both a good life and doing good. In fact, just last weekend my wife and I were in New York City to visit our daughter where we spent three full days engaged in conversations with her friends about art, culture, politics, and economics. In direct contrast to the assertions of my crotchety dinner party round-table, these kids are motivated, engaged, compassionate, and eager to not just tackle the world, but change it for the better. Yes, there was talk of parties and dating and general silliness, but nature dictates that those will always be disproportionately included among the interests of youth, all the more to pity us old timers.

Perhaps, too, it is in the nature of age to stand in judgement, to take the attitude of superiority. I see it too often from my perch as a preschool teacher, where even well-intended adults are prone to view kids as humans of a lesser sort. They condescend and scold, correct and mold. They complain that they are messy and rude, too easily distracted, unmotivated, and lazy. They force them into programs of "improvement," foisting violin lessons upon them, devising tricks to get them to clean their rooms, and otherwise betraying their ageist bigotry.

I tried to simply wait for these women to turn to other topics, but soon realized that they were just warming up. So I said, "I disagree with you." They turned to me as one, their eyebrows raised in arch cocksureness. One of them said, "I've hired lots of millennials and they're all the same. They act like they're bored. They don't understand the first thing about hard work."

This was the trigger. "What you mean is that they're not motivated to do your mind-numbing, grunt work. What you mean is that they don't want to be treated like inferior humans. What you mean is that they hate their job and their boss and they would rather be doing something meaningful with their lives. To me that's not a sign of low intelligence or lack of motivation. It's a sign that they have their priorities straight." I then went on to tell them about the young people I know, how they are light-years ahead of where I was at their age, how they are, as young people should, looking for a better deal out of life than the nose-to-the-grindstone crap they have been force fed by grown-ups. I told them how selfish baby boomers have left them with an economy that will, for the first time in American history, leave them less well off financially than previous generations and an environment on the verge of collapse. I shared my support for a generation that is growing up to be far more politically progressive than any generation that has come before it; that I hope they come to power before the ignorant crew who is currently in charge destroys it all; that the young people I know work harder than I ever did; that I'm proud of them for trying to shrug off the burdens others want to place on their backs; and that I'm sick of no nothing fuddy duddies ignorantly running down an entire class of people.

I finished by telling them that all my hopes for the future lie with millennials and that theirs should too. After all, the future belongs to the young and from where I sit, it is in far better hands than is the present.

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

"I'm A Doctor"

As the two-year-old boy tried to walk up a short, sand-dusted concrete slope, his feet slipped from beneath him. He fell forward onto the concrete. I saw it happen. He took a moment, still prone, to look around as if deciding if he was going to cry. When he saw me looking his way, his face wrinkled into a look of anguish and he let it out.

I walked to him. I usually walk in circumstances like this for the same reason I strive to maintain a calm expression: running conveys panic and the last thing I want to do is compound his pain with fear. Taking a seat on the ground beside him, I said, "You fell." Putting a hand on his back, I said, "I came to be with you."

When he cried louder, I asked, "Did you hurt your hands?"

He shook his head. I left some silence for him to fill with the details he wanted to share, but instead he filled it with crying.

"Did you hurt your tummy?"

He shook his head.

"Did you hurt your chin?"

This time he nodded, still crying.

I saw no mark on his chin, "It's not bleeding, but I can get you a bandaid."

He shook his head.

Another two-year-old boy had also seen it happen. He joined us, looking from me to his classmate throughout the exchange. When I left more silence, this boy decided to fill it, almost as if showing me the proper formula, bending down and asking, "Are you okay?" This is what adults say to a fallen child, a phrase I've struck from my own lexicon figuring that an injured child will let me know soon enough if he's hurt without my planting of the idea with that question. In this moment, however, from a two-year-old's lips, I heard it as a courtesy, like saying "Please," "Thank you," and "How are you?"

He still cried, but not with the intensity of before, notching it down to a breathy moaning, head up, his fingers tracing paths in the dusting of sand that had been his undoing.

Yet another two-year-old boy joined us. He had not seen what had happened, and asked me, "Why is he crying?"

I replied, "He fell and hurt his chin."

"I'm a doctor."

I asked the boy who had fallen, "Do you need a doctor?"

He shook his head. There were three of us now in a circle around our friend who was winding down his cry, finishing it.

The boy who had asked "Are you okay?" took what the older kids sometimes call "the easy way" up the short slope, a path in the dirt that circumvents the concrete part, intending, I thought, to go about his play. Perhaps that had been the plan, but he stopped and turned to check on his friend, saying once more, "Are you okay?"

This time his friend nodded. His cry had become a soft whimper. I said, "You're not crying now." He didn't respond. His fingers fiddled with the sand until they found a twig which he bent and twisted. I had been sitting beside him. I said, "I'm going to get up now," which I did. I had a vague idea that I was role modeling a possible next step for him, but he didn't immediately follow my lead. Instead, my place was taken by the doctor who sat, as I had done, silently beside him. We're always role modeling, but we can't pick what they will chose to imitate -- or even who will do the imitating.

I kept an eye on the situation from a few feet away. There was some conversation between the boys, but I couldn't hear it. The boy who had taken the easy way up, then climbed to the top of the concrete slide and slid down before circling back to the scene of the fall.

By now, the boy who had fallen had completely finished his cry and was on his feet. There was more discussion amongst the three boys that I didn't hear, but judging from the body language, I'm guessing it was either about the fall or about how to best navigate the short, sand-dusted slope. Then, the two boys who had come to their friend's aid, ascended via the easy way. The boy who had fallen, however, tackled the concrete slope. His boot slipped a bit, but this time he made it without injury. He then ran back down and tried it again, then again, four times in all before he moved on.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

This Difficult, Miserable Thing

Yesterday, some of the four and five-year-old girls were planning a sleep over. I found out about it when a couple of the boys complained that they weren't invited because they were boys. Later, predictably, one of the girls was in tears over this imaginary sleep over, her face contorted with the sort of anguish that can only result from a broken heart. Friendship can be a difficult, miserable thing.

My wife and I have just returned from a long weekend in New York City where our daughter Josephine is a senior at NYU. We've been back to visit her several times over the past four years and each time we've set aside at least one evening for entertaining her friends with a meal and a few drinks in a decent restaurant. This time there were eleven of us, some of whom I'd met before, while some I only knew by reputation.

The group has evolved since she was a freshman, but many of her closest friends have remained the same over the years, becoming the sorts of friendships that one hopes will last a lifetime. My wife and I love these evenings, this chance to get a glimpse into our child's life outside the nest, to hear these smart, talented young people tell us stories and share their feelings about our girl. I've not always liked her friends over the years, but I'm quite fond of these kids, and, more importantly to this father, they seem to be quite fond of our girl.

In the aftermath of these evenings it's impossible to not reflect on Josephine as a preschooler, where I, as a parent in a cooperative school, was there from the start of this lifelong quest to connect with other people through friendship. It has been a long, not always joyful road, one of tears, anger, and disappointment. The heartbreak is no one's fault, of course, it's built into the process. The project of becoming intimate with these other people requires opening one's self up to them and it's often a vulnerable place to be. As I watched this girl on our playground yesterday being comforted, I recalled the many times that I had tried to comfort young Josephine under almost identical circumstances.

It's a necessarily painful process, I think. I recall my own heartbreaks, those moments when I felt that my love had been cruelly betrayed or rebuffed. We all have our long, tormented histories, rife with times when we could do nothing but cry. Many of us are scarred, hardened. Some are truly damaged. This is why when we see it happening with our children, our hearts break along with theirs. We all have vast experience with this and none of us ever become experts.

Yet, most of us persevere, as did the girl on our playground who found herself on the outside of a sleep over that will never happen. We let our feelings flourish, we find that time does indeed heal, at least partially. Some of us learn something from this or that heartbreak, but others of us will make the same mistake over and over again, as we strive to figure out this difficult, miserable thing. It's sometimes a wonder that we keep trying, but we do, driven by nature, filled with renewed hope, because this is why we are here: to connect with the other people through the love that we call friendship. We do it because in the end it's through and alongside the other people that we create a life worth living.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Throwing Balls

We have a fantastic outdoor space, one that I consider state-of-the-art. That said, it doesn't lend itself well to all modes of play. Wheeled vehicles, for instance, are troublesome given that our terrain is largely sand, mud, or wood chip covered, without a hint of paving or flatness. Balls are likewise not well-accommodated. Not only does our terrain thwart most traditional ball games, but the sooner or later destiny of every ball is to wind up over the fence at the bottom of the hill, where it is lost forever in the impossible thicket of blackberry bramble that the city has allowed to consume the no-man's land below our school.

Every now and then, there have been children disappointed by the lack of ball play around the place. Some have even gone so far as to donate balls from their own collection only to see them suffer their inevitable fate. I enjoyed ball games as a boy, and still do as a grown man, but I long ago accepted the reality that our school cannot be all things to all people and that, at best, we are a poor host for ball-based games.

This year, however, a couple of our kids have shown a stronger than usual interest in throwing and, to a slightly lesser degree, catching. One boy in particular, a three-year-old, is fascinated by throwing objects of all sorts. Some of are inappropriate for throwing, like blocks and rocks, so I've been working to steer his interest toward things meant for throwing, balls among them. Coincidentally, a pair of small footballs have turned up around the place.

I've taken to playing "catch" with this boy. He has a good arm, one that he likes to test out, so we must stand a good distance apart. He struggles, however, with the catching end of things, which is quite normal for a three-year-old.

The advent of the footballs has revealed an older boy who, while perhaps not as focused on throwing as his younger classmate, has two older brothers from whom he has learned to both throw and catch quite well. He has started joining our game of catch. In the beginning, I would take turns throwing to the boys, first the younger, who would close his eyes and allow the ball to bounce off his hands, then the older, who showed his experience by snagging even poorly thrown balls. The other day, however, the pattern changed. The older boy, after catching a ball I had thrown began turning to the younger boy to make a short, soft, underhanded toss to him, a ball much easier for the younger boy to catch. Then the younger boy would make the long throw down the hill to me. And this has become the pattern of our game of catch, a game that allows all of us to throw and catch at our own level.

No one told the older, more experienced boy what to do. No one even suggested it. He simply recognized what his classmate needed -- short, soft, underhanded tosses -- and accommodated him in the interest of making the game fully accessible to both of them.

As we played like this, I was taken back to my own childhood, playing kick ball in the street in front of our house, a game that included all the children who lived on our street, kids of varied ages and abilities. We never allowed our "rules" to exclude anyone. For instance, we simply adapted them to better suit Chuck, our wheel chair bound friend from across the street. He couldn't "run" as fast as the rest of us, so when it was his turn we shortened the bases and let him punch the ball with his fist. We were more gentle with the younger or less skilled kids. Rules were not hard and fast, but rather infinitely flexible, used to give structure to our game without becoming barriers to entry because, after all, if we were going to play a proper game of street kick ball we needed everyone.

Later in life, when we began to get involved with "organized" sport with its emphasis on winning and hard-and-fast rules, things changed, but when left to our own devices we tended to play both inclusively and equitably, driven by the process of the game much more than its outcome. This is a phenomenon I've witnessed time and again as a teacher in a play-based preschool. Indeed, it is so common that I've come to consider it part of human nature, something that seems to be, sadly, discouraged by our wider society. I've said it before and I'll say it again: children are no less wise than adults. The struggle is to not unlearn that wisdom as we grow older.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

Other People And Their Agendas

Marcus was working on a cardboard block tower. Lilyanna was helping.

They built it as high as they could, arriving at a point when they struggled to reach the top. It was really quite beautiful, these 2-year-olds spontaneously coming together in common cause like this, not talking, just doing. It takes a combination of concentration and speed to build something that tall, with another person, in a crowded classroom where everything is being continually jostled. But when they arrived at that point where their bodies were not tall enough to reach, their agenda's diverged. Marcus clearly wanted to pursue the challenge of continuing to make it even taller, while Lilyanna joyfully pretended to fall, intentionally pulling the building down with her, where she lay on the floor laughing as the blocks rained down on her.

Marcus reacted by lowering his eyebrows, appearing irritated and slightly aghast, I think not at Lilyanna, but rather, if I had to guess, at the lost opportunity. He'd perhaps been planning to find a chair or something else to stand on, to reach even higher. He then went back to rebuilding, with Lilyanna once more pitching in. They went through this full cycle six times, each go around reaching that point where their agendas diverged and the walls came tumbling down.

The general ethic of our classroom is that if you build it, only you can knock it down, but we don't really have a way to deal with this, when they build it together toward different purposes. I suppose I could have, after a couple repetitions, suggested that each child build her own building, but I didn't, mainly because Marcus didn't seem particularly upset (in fact, he appeared rather philosophical) and usually when young children repeat a play pattern over and over I interpret that as a sign that they are trying to learn something that is personally important.

It's impossible to have a judgement here, to side with one child or another. Each was pursuing his own perfectly legitimate, viable agenda. It was incredible when they merged, and that they merged for so long. Together, for a time, they built higher and faster than either could have alone. I even suspect that had Lilyanna been able to hold off just few minutes longer, those agendas would have re-converged and they could have knocked it down together, because that had often in the past been the destiny of Marcus' towers, but that is the way life with the other people sometimes works.

All human problems and all human glories result from the great truth that we go about our individual lives working our own unique agendas. From our first cries, using our only tool for connecting with the other humans, we seek out sensations, connections, and even objects that in some way satisfy those agendas, and we pursue them relentlessly. We have our conscious agendas and our unconscious agendas, overt and covert, ones we announce proudly and those we shamefully leave unspoken. And these agendas shape how we engage with the world. There are so many agendas working at so many purposes at any given time, that it seems a miracle that we ever get together on anything at all.

This is a big part of why we're in preschool, to learn to work our agendas together; to learn how to find where they match, because together we can do things that we can't alone, but also to learn how to deal with those inevitable times when they diverge and the building comes crashing down around us. 

There are some hard, complicated lessons to learn about agendas. There are times, of course, when we must stand and fight, but we also must learn to pick our battles. There are times when we must step aside. Sometimes we must conclude, as Marcus finally did, that we will not be able to complete our agenda today, and learn when to walk away, hopefully to return another day. Most often we need to talk, to compromise, to find a way to alter our agendas in order for them to imperfectly merge in order to achieve a kind of "second best" result that leaves all parties both satisfied and dissatisfied. And, naturally, the more people, the more agendas that must be included, the more difficult it gets. This whole business of living with the other people is an emotional tangle, full of pointy parts to navigate, made even more challenging as we begin to understand that those other people are navigating too. But as difficult as it is, it's important because it's exactly the process of picking our way through this jumble of agendas that teaches us empathy, which is just another complication in this complicated business.

Some days I have no idea how any towers ever get built in the world. It all seems so impossible.

Yet we keep doing it, throughout our lives, re-engaging in this difficult business of other people.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

How All Those Free And Motivated Minds Will Transform Our World

As our daughter Josephine approached school age we seriously considered homeschooling. Our three years of cooperative preschool had been wonderful, but as we stood at the threshold of kindergarten, I had a choice to make. Either I was going to send her off to school, with me staying behind to teach cooperative preschool or she was going to "stay home" with me and we would continue our educational journey shoulder-to-shoulder. I'd not yet become as radicalized about education as I am today, but even knowing what I know now, I'd have made the same decision.

We were, blessedly, a one-income family, which meant we were in a position to make this sort of choice. We had begun preschool when she was two, not out of a need for childcare, but rather because it was clear that Josephine had a stronger social drive than my own. Whereas I might be happy to spend a day puttering around the house, she insisted that we get out and "do something," even as a toddler, and for her, that meant finding some other kids with which to play. I know now that this was her educational instinct expressing itself.

Education, true education, can really only take place in the context of others, or as author Alfie Kohn writes, "marinated in community." As a fundamentally introverted person, the chore of cobbling together a child-centric social life for our daughter, making arrangements to meet people here or there, signing up for classes, and organizing outings began to weigh on me. The idea of a place to regularly go, where we would find people we recognized, where we could build community together, began to appeal to me because I knew it would appeal to Josephine while relieving me of that weight of social organizing. Not that long ago, during my own childhood even, extended families and more closely-knit neighborhoods largely filled this role, but we live in a world in which it is no longer acceptable (and in some places even illegal) to simply send one's child outside to play, for hours on end, with the children they find there. 

It still makes me sad to know that Josephine never had the experience of walking up and down the street knocking on doors to ask if Pheobe or Johnny could "come out to play," but our cooperative preschool, with its emphasis on play and community was a happy alternative, and she dug right in, every day, working, working, working on her relationships with the children and adults she found there. For our family, the idea of homeschooling or unschooling, would have been a kind of hardship to both Josephine, who to this day is driven to get out there and mix it up with the other people, and me, who would spend my days, if left to my own devices, puttering in my jammies.

In other words, I never felt either of us needed school for the "academic" learning -- I'd long ago witnessed that literacy and numeracy and the absorption of scientific and other facts emerged as she was ready for them -- but rather for the opportunity to engage in community. This is why I've never once, in all her years of "real" school, asked a teacher a question about her grades, test scores, or transcript. I've listened to teachers tell me about these things, but when it came my turn to talk, I've always asked some version of the questions, "How does she treat her friends?" and "How do they treat her?" This is why we sent her to school.

There is so much talk about school "reform," from all points of view, but as author Ken Robinson writes, we would be better served to be talking about "transformation." For many, this transformation involves getting rid of schools altogether, and maybe they're right. But from where I sit we will still need something like schools to replace them: places where children of all ages can come together and practice the skills of building community, to develop the habits of cooperation, to work with others, to be sociable, and to learn to walk the balance between personal freedom and honoring the agreements we make with one another. In other words, to practice the skills and habits of what I think of as deep democracy.

The children at Woodland Park make their own rules, by consensus. Several years ago, my friend Henry was walking around the classroom with his hands over his head, palms forward, wiggling his fingers rapidly. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, "I'm the police." His hands were the flashing patrol car lights.

I asked, "Oh, so you're giving people tickets and stuff?"

"No," he answered, "I'm reminding them when they're breaking the rules." And sure enough, he was sidling up to his classmates and saying things like, "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no running inside," and "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no hitting." And his friends were thanking him. This is what I mean by deep democracy: not the superficial winner-take-all horse race of modern electoral politics, but the notion that free and equal humans are fully capable of self-governance, of making agreements with one another, then abiding by them. That really is the core of community: our agreements are sacred.

Children naturally understand deep democracy. Most adults have unlearned it even while we honestly believe we are the beacons of fairness. For instance, our playground has only two swings over which there are regular debates. When adults get involved the solution is invariably some version of enforced turn-taking, usually with a timer set to strictly limit each child's turn in the name of "fairness," leaving no one entirely satisfied. When children are left to their own devices, however, as we were as children, when not imposed from on high, our agreements, more often than not, result in mutual satisfaction.

Sometimes the children will decide to share the swing, cramming two, three or four kids onto a single seat. Indeed, at Woodland Park, this solution has evolved into hanging a plank of wood between the two swings, creating a kind of bench swing upon which as many as a dozen kids can swing at once.

Sometimes it turns into a game in which two children will alternate on their own, counting together to 10 or 20, a solution that fundamentally differs from the adult version in that it's a game they play together rather than one child standing sulkily by as a grown-up keeps an eye on her watch.

Sometimes children push one another, taking on different, but equal roles. And often they come up with complex agreements that become games unto themselves, like the time our 4-5 year olds developed a system by which one had to ask for a turn three times in succession, wording the question precisely each time, or, like a magic lock, it didn't work.

And always, over time and with the freedom to practice, the ethic emerges that when you find someone already using the swing you want, you simply call, "Next!" much the way children call "Shotgun!" to determine who gets to sit beside the driver in the car. This is deep democracy. "Next!" is sacred, so sacred that when the child on the swing is finished, he usually seeks out the rightful next in line, even if he has gone on to other things. 

Deep democracy is what happens when we agree to have a "pinecone fight," as we often did in my youth, all of us knowing without adult commands, that tacit in this agreement is the idea that no one wants to get hurt, so heads and faces are off limits, that one throws more gently at close range, that if someone starts to cry the game is on hold until that cry is over. Adults tend to muck this up by simply banning the game altogether, giving no one a chance to learn anything.

Deep democracy is what happens when the 10-year-old pitcher gently tosses the ball to the five-year-old batter instead of trying to strike him out because the unspoken agreement is to have fun, not win or lose. No one has to tell him to do that if he's had the opportunity to practice the skills and habits of community.

Deep democracy happens when children come together each day, girls and boys, friends and foes, with minimal adult interference and maximal freedom to play.

I commend and admire those of you who have managed this sort of deeply democratic educational experience through homeschooling and unschooling, but for most of us, we need schools, or something like schools. True play-based preschools and democratic free schools, to me, are the best models we currently have for what's possible when the transformation comes. And it will come, not only because is it the right thing for education and for children, but because it is ultimately in the direction of morality. As Martin Luther King famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," which is ultimately what deep democracy is all about.

I invite you to imagine for a moment "schools" in which children are free to discover and pursue their passions while marinated in community. Imagine that transformation, then imagine how all those free and motivated minds will transform our world.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"It Is A Dirt Shovel

The two-year-olds made a mysterious discovery. There on the table at the top of the hill was a shovel made of dirt. It looked just like one of the small shovels we use in the sandpit, except that instead of being made of colorful plastic, it was made from dirt.

"It's a shovel. Look, right here." She used her finger to trace the shape in the air above the dirt shovel, not touching it. Her classmates gathered around, likewise not touching it. They studied it in silence for a time, then one of them reached out and attempted to grab the handle, concluding, "I can't pick it up."

No one speculated about where it had come from. I was tempted to ask leading questions, to compare it to one of the actual shovels that had obviously been its template, or to otherwise guide them toward an answer I wanted them to find. Instead, which is usually the better course of action, I remained silent, leaving them with their mystery. We all remained there together for what seemed like at least a couple minutes.

"It's not a shovel," said a boy, one half of a pair of identical twins.

"It is a shovel," replied the girl who had first discovered it.

They were not arguing, but rather each voicing their unique perceptions of reality, framing a question that no one had yet asked. The rest continued to contemplate the mystery. The girl once more traced the dirt shovel's outline with her finger in the air as if confirming things for herself or perhaps for the others.

Finally, the twin said, "It is a dirt shovel."

Whether or not this settled the matter, I'll never know; mysteries are often not things that can be settled in a moment. But whatever the case, the spell was broken and interest was apparently lost. I was sitting on the edge of the table slightly to the side of the shovel outline. They formed a kind of semi-circle around me.

I gave in to my temptation a bit then, echoing what the twin had said by way of putting a little bow on things, "E- said it's a dirt shovel."

He looked at me for a moment, then at his twin brother. "I not E-," he corrected me, "I N- . . . " Then pointing to his brother, "He not N-." Then thoughtfully, as if talking his way toward an epiphany, he pointed to the dirt shovel, "Not a shovel." He looked around, searching, then walked purposefully away, returning with an actual shovel. "Shovel," he said. He pointed to the dirt outline, "Not shovel." The other children seemed to be following his reasoning, thinking their own thoughts. "I not E-" he said as if to himself, "I N-."

The girl who had discovered the dirt shovel, then piped up, pointing at the brother, "He's not N- . . . He's E-."

Then another girl said, pointing at the shovel N- held in his fist, "That's a shovel," then pointing at the outline, "That's a dirt shovel."

We remained silent for a long moment, together with our mysteries, then went our separate ways.

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