Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Understanding Every Word

The most challenging part of my recent trip to Greece was visiting the Dorothy Snot Preschool and not sharing a language with the kids. It wasn't the children's challenge, they couldn't have cared less, but mine. If there's any single thing I'm certain of, it's my ability to engage children, but until I dropped to my knees in the school's courtyard to bring myself face-to-face with the kids, I'd not been aware of how reliant I'd become on doing that through chattering.

Robbed of my go-to move, I was thrown back upon non-verbal communication. With the youngest kids, of course, this wasn't so hard. They're still working on the rudiments of language themselves, and much of my communication, even with English-speaking toddlers is non-verbal, so it didn't take me long to figure out a few simple, repetitive games we could do together, like passing a ball back and forth through a hanging tire, to get things going, to develop some trust. No, my real challenge was with the oldest kids, the 5-year-olds, the ones who chatter as much as I do.

The kids had been anticipating my visit, and none more so than the kindergarten class, crowding around me, full of questions and comments that were all, literally, Greek to me. It feels awful, frankly, to leave children hanging like that, not knowing how or even whether to respond. I got on my knees with them as well, smiling, responding to their physical touch with touch of my own, turning to one of the teachers for help translating when a child was particularly insistent that she or he be heard. 

I'd been a child in Greece some 40 years before, arriving with limited Greek language skills, much like this return visit. Back then I'd managed communication, cobbling together a common language of words and gestures with the children I met there, but I felt out of practice there in the midst of these kids who were excited to engage with me. I didn't want to let them down. I'd worn my cape for that first visit, the one you see me wearing at the top of this blog, so I started by offering it to the kids, asking through pantomime who wanted a turn to wear it. The bolder children took me up on it, taking turns racing around the space with the red cape trailing behind them, growing a bit wild in their play, tugging at the cape, wrestling one another in their excitement. I was winding them up, which is not in and of itself a horrible thing, but it's not really communication.

As we played this game, my ear began to pick out familiar Greek words like, "yes," "no," "tomorrow," "go," "strawberry," words I'd not needed in four decades. At one point I began to just shout them out randomly as they came to me and the kids shouted them back, language without communication, a step in the right direction perhaps, but one that didn't really lead us anywhere, other than to perhaps cement the growing opinion among the kids that Teacher Tom was, at least, silly.

At one point, a teacher brought out a large sheet of paper and some markers. I don't know if she meant it for me or not, but I saw my opportunity. Soon we were gathered around the paper, drawing. This is a universal language. It no longer mattered what we were saying as we pushed up against one another, huddling up, sharing a blank space, filling it up with our lines and figures and colors. It was through drawing with the children like this that I began to become something more than a silly man in a red cape. It was in this process that we first began to become friends.

Over the course of the next few days we found other ways to communicate. We ate together several times. I learned to say, "I don't like that," which is an important phrase for every adult to have when working with young children. The highlight for me, then, was telling a story, in English, to the kindergarteners. It was a plan the teachers and I had cooked up, a sort of challenge. I would tell the story, then the kids would tell us what they thought the story was about. It was a test of the new language we'd developed together over the preceding three days. I used lots of hand, body, and voice gestures. I was thrilled that they laughed at all the same places the kids do back home. Occasionally, one of them would shout out an English word to me that they recognized: "Butterfly!" "Bear!" At the end of the story, they wanted to hear it again, which was an incredible honor.

Upon the second telling, then, the kids discussed what they thought the story was all about, and sure enough, they nailed it. That evening, I met the parents of one of the boys. They told me he'd come home enthused, boasting to them that Teacher Tom had told them a story in English and that he'd understood every word.

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