(Note: My thoughts have been on Owain for the past 48 hours, so I thought I'd share one of the things I've been thinking about. The great news is that Owain is in "good spirits," and his family is hoping he can come home tomorrow. If you want to join Owain's Army, you can access his CaringBridge page here.)
Up until Owain arrived in my classroom, I'd had a "no costumes" policy, just as I'd had a "no toy's from home" policy. We had classroom dress-up clothes, of course, but somehow I had the idea that allowing costumes from home would be too distracting. What an idiot I was, and Owain showed me that.
He was relentless in his desire to go through life dressed for the occasion, and to his mother Heather's credit, she let her 3-year-old wear his US Air Force flight suit to school, a gift from his grandmother as I recall, in spite of my policy. I now know she must have been thinking, It's your damn policy. You try enforcing it.
When he walked into the room as a 3-year-old, wearing that flight suit, even his older classmates were impressed, but it was more than just the clothes, it was the way he wore them, as if he were conscious of the duty, pride and honor they implied. How could a child that young understand these things? It's crazy, but that's how it struck me.
And it wasn't just me. There were some kids for whom the day hadn't started until he arrived, full of information and ideas, a man in uniform, ready to get something going. At the time, I rationalized the involuntary flexibility in my policy by making a mental distinction between a uniform and a costume, but I lost my hiding place when he moved on to capes and his Transformer costume. I never invoked the policy because, frankly, my fear of distraction (whatever I even thought that meant) never materialized, and instead I saw nothing but good.
Owain opened my eyes to the important role costumes can play in the development of a strong self-image for some kids. A big part of the job of young children is to be "powerful" in the world, to try out the traits we ascribe to our "heroes," those to whom we associate characteristics we admire. In a very real sense, donning a flight suit, or a crown, or a cape, imbues the wearer with those traits. My own daughter Josephine wore a crown of some sort nearly every day for the better part of 2-years, even to school, and I saw not only how it made her behave like a princess, but how others treated her like a princess. When she met Sophia, another crown-wearer, it was love at first sight. (Eight years later Sophia is still a friend with whom she "plays" aspirational games with clothing, music, and make-up.)
I used to spend a lot of time monkeying around with our classroom costume collection, trying to figure out why only the princess stuff was ever used. We had cowboy hats, baseball shirts, and animal costumes, but they rarely left the hooks unless an adult sort of "forced" the issue. Naturally, we didn't have any superhero or military stuff -- my adult brain associated those with violence -- but here was this boy Owain showing me that the real power associated with these heroes was in their boldness, goodness, and fearlessness.
It's not all superheroes and princesses in the costume world. At different times, our classroom has hosted children trying out the costumed power of dinosaurs, ballerinas, astronauts, construction workers, doctors, monster trucks, and even mommies and daddies. Often their "costumes" are little more than t-shirts with pictures allowing them to borrow that particular kind of power for a time, but the common theme is that I can't pick their meaningful costumes for them. Our classroom dress-up clothes will always, at best, be stand-ins for the important costumes they have at home.
That's what Owain (and Heather) taught me. Without their bold insistence of making me confront my idiotic policy, I might have squelched our be-caped Alex, or Charlotte, who wore her cowgirl costume almost every day for a year, or Ava, who often came dressed in her firefighter ensemble. Not to mention the super team of Ella, Josephine, and Katherine who spent last Thursday "flying" around the classroom in the wonderful, non-commercial capes Charlie L.'s mom Shelly recently made for us, finally giving us classroom "stand-in" costumes the kids will actually wear beyond the princess gowns.
But the important costumes, the most powerful ones, will always come from home. And they're welcome at Woodland Park.