Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"First Is Worst"

When our oldest kids come in from outdoors to convene on the checkerboard rug for our daily community meeting, what we call circle time, there are a few who race to kick off their rain boots and wash their hands while others take their own sweet time.

"I'm the first kid!"

"I'm the first girl!"

"I'm the second boy!"

Earlier in the year, someone responded to this boasting with what has become a contemporary bromide, "First is worst, second is best, third place gets the treasure chest." I'm aware that third place might also receive a "wedding dress" or a "hairy chest," but "treasure chest" is the one upon which the children seem to have settled. I once tried to sell them on being "named Celeste," but it didn't fly.

One day, after a particularly fierce battle of elbows down the hallway, I corrected them, "I'm sorry, but you're all wrong. It goes like this: First is worst, second is worst, third place is also worst." They argued with me, one girl invoking her older brother as an unimpeachable authority, but I persisted to the point that we now regularly spend that five minute wait time engaged in the debate.

"But Teacher Tom, that means everybody is the worst."

"No, it means every place is the worst. I don't think we should be all that worried about what place we are. Who cares? It's not a race."

"What happens if you're in fourth place?"

"That's still also the worst."

"What about fifth place?"

"Still the worst."

"What about one-millionth place?"

"Still the worst."

"Who gets the treasure chest?"

"No body."

This has gone on for weeks, with the kids working together to "prove" me wrong, each supporting the other, "She's right, Teacher Tom, third place does get the treasure chest, my mom told me." As I look around at my feet, I see primarily younger siblings. Indeed, I expect that this construct, one that doesn't even really make sense, was concocted by a parent dealing with competitive siblings as a way to tone things down. (I always imagine my brother and I, as competitive a pair of kids as there ever was, slow walking everywhere in quest of securing the "best" second place.) The single and eldest sibs tend to filter in later, not nearly as focused on rivalry as their first-on-the-rug classmates, and as they do, my side, the side that claims it's all "worst," gains support, although it is usually of the yeah-yeah-whatever-you-say-let's-move-on variety.

Late last week we were assembling like this, me trying to get them to see the ridiculousness of this sort of competition, while they sought to correct me, one girl who doesn't normally arrive with the early crew sat with narrowed eyes, listening to what is by now almost a choreographed give-and-take. She raised her hand amidst what was a free-form discussion, so we gave her the floor.

"Teacher Tom," she said earnestly, "They're not all worst. Maybe they're all best. First is best, second is best, third place is also best. Everybody is best!" She looked from her classmates to me, her hands outspread in front of her as if to emphasize the profound logic of her assertion. We sat in silence for a time as her words sank in.

Finally, the silence was broken, "Yeah, we're all best!" Then the others joined in with agreement. "We're all best." I sat there nodding as this seemed to put a lid on it, then as the things died down, another girl said, "But I was still first," and we were back to the academic debate over the meaning of a bromide.

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