Friday, May 31, 2013

A Box Full Of Everything Worth Knowing

My friend David gave us a big box. He said it could be anything we wanted it to be. What we wanted it to be was a big box.

We got inside and pulled the flaps shut. Sometimes we were in there alone, but usually we were in there together. 

It's quieter in there, our senses are deprived of the hubbub of the classroom, brought alive instead by the other people with whom we are now in enclosed proximity, breathing their steamy breath, smelling of skin, soap, fabric softener, breakfast, sounding muffled and intimate when they speak, a shadow barely visible in the faint light leaking through the cracks.

Our bodies touch in there, thighs against mine, living flesh, flesh and bone: negotiating for a parcel of the limited space, clambering over, being stepped upon, fingers pinched under a shoe.

Sometimes there are too many of us: hot and crowded and the person in the darkest part wants out, crying to be let out, shouting to open the door.

But mostly it's about us on the inside, while they, our dimly heard, unseen friends, are on the outside. We know they're there, we hear them, they knock on the box, beating it like a drum, or they shake it, saying, "Earthquake!" We're in here, in here together, and all of that going on out there is another world where they understand nothing about making eye-contact in the dark, or the warmth of our bodies pressed together, the intimacy of being in a box together with the lid shut.

Later Teacher Tom started cutting windows in the places we said we wanted them, windows with flaps so we could open and close them. 

Now the outside can get in whenever it wants, is always getting in as friends pop a hand through, or a head. 

Sometimes we yell at them from the inside to "Close it! Close it!" And they do, but not for long enough, as they are curious about us, the people on the inside.

Now the inside can get out too, through these windows. Here I am! 

Pop! Did you think I was lost?

We brought everything we know about ourselves and other people to bear on this project of playing with this big box, we had to because the space on the inside was so small and dark and inviting.

And even on the outside the space was small, the surface space, and everyone wanted a part of it. 

There were frustrations and intimacies, cheers and tears, people not doing what we wanted them to do and us not understanding when they needed something from us. There were times to fight our battles and times to let it slide. We took turns, we waited, we changed our plans, we came back later. We were persuasive and persuaded, we lost and we won, but mostly we found ways to agree because there was only one box and many of us.

We wanted it to be a big box. We used it to practice what we know about getting along.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

"I'm Done Now"

"Teacher Tom, help me."

He was holding our step ladder, almost as big as he is, the one I stained a brown to match the floors in our old house when my daughter was his age, standing up above the garden. 

"You're holding the ladder."

"Help me."

"You want me to help you, but I don't know what you're trying to do."

With an exaggerated exasperation worthy of a teenager, he answered, "I'm moving this ladder."

I nodded that I understood without making a move to help.

He turned and hoisting the ladder as high as he could, attempted to lift it onto one of the tree stumps that ring our sandpit. Not being quite tall enough, not having arms quite long enough, the legs of the ladder didn't clear edge, missing by a couple inches. After wrestling to stand it upright for a minute or so, he resorted to lying it on its side.

Then he turned to me, "Help me," holding up his arms to be lifted, apparently up into the sandpit with the ladder.

He's been up and down that rise all year long. Help is not something he needed, it was something he wanted. Sometimes "Help me," means, "Play with me" or "Notice me" or "I want to connect with you."

I doubt he remembered in that moment that it was the last day of school. I'm sure someone had told him, but when you're barely three it's hard to understand that a part of your life's rhythm is going to change until you wake up one morning and it's gone. Maybe this morning he's asking his mom, "Is it a school day?" As he struggled with the stepladder even I wasn't yet aware that he wasn't returning next year like most of his classmates. Neither of us knew that this was the last time we would be together as student and teacher.

I said, "I'm going to climb up," and I bent down to clamber into the sandpit on my hands and knees the way I'd seen him do it dozens of times over the course of our long school year.

He imitated me, then we stood together looking at that ladder, lying on its side. He returned it to its upright position, then lifted it into the air and began walking along the tops of the tree stumps. When he got to the playhouse he stopped and said, "Help me."

"I don't know what you want me to do."

"I want you to put it down here," he answered, bending to stand the ladder on ground where he wanted it, then dropping to his knees to follow.

I said, "You helped yourself," but he didn't appear to hear me.

He lifted the ladder again, then attempted to squeeze it and himself between the playhouse and the backside of the windmill sculpture. The ladder's legs again got in the way, catching on some of the windmill's support hardware. His face flushed red with the effort, turning the ladder and his body this way and that without success.

If he had said, Help me, again, I was ready to answer, That gap looks too narrow for the ladder, but he figured it out on his own, finally dropping the ladder and untangling his legs. He picked up the ladder again and carried it around the other side of the playhouse to the door.

It's not clear to me whether or not this had been his destination all along, but when he got there, he attempted to fit the ladder through. There were several minutes of struggle before it was finally inside. He stood it on its legs, then gave it a final pat before leaving it there. As he emerged, he met one of his friends carrying a chair toward the playhouse door, apparently having been inspired by his efforts.

I said, "I helped you."

He looked at me and smiled, paused, then said, "Yes. I know that. I'm done now."

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Race And Racism; Gender And Sexism

Last week, under the title "Girls v. Boys," I wrote about how I remained vigilant, yet largely stood back as some 3-5 year-old boys chanted, "Boy Scouts! Boy Scouts! Boy Scouts!" while a group of girl classmates called back, "Girl Scouts! Girl Scouts! Girl Scouts!" In that post I wrote:

I'm pretty sure there were times in my past as a teacher when I would have barged in to scuttle the game, letting my adult judgement of things rule the day, probably pushing it underground, sending the message that certain thoughts and themes are "bad." I'm glad I've learned to be slow to react, to dig in first and try to see events through the eyes of the kids, which, after all, is the perspective that matters most. It's their play. It's their experience. It's their education.

An anonymous reader commented:

I'm truly not asking this as a gotcha, because I've been in this situation myself with kids and really wondered whether to step in . . . but what if it was the same game, only the kids were separating by race, or another marker? I'm guessing we would step in. Why is gender different?

That's a fair question, one I've been thinking on for over a week now. I don't know if I have any answers, but the following riff, which is what it is more than an essay, is what I've got so far.

Now, in the interest of laying all the cards on the table, I need to say that our school is located in the midst of a cluster of Seattle neighborhoods north of downtown, well-known for its predominantly European-American ethnic make-up. The area's Scandinavian immigrant heritage is belied by the number of blonde heads you see in the photos on this blog. All of our classes enroll a handful of families with Asian-American backgrounds, while very few have Latin or African-American ancestry.

My own background is of having grown up during my early years in the deep south, South Carolina, during an era of court-ordered school desegregation, which I've written about before. I actually like talking about race because, I've found, it's a topic that makes most thoughtful people slow down and chose their words, something I find to be a fruitful thing. I'm navigating my words right now -- it's very easy to righteously offend people when discussing race and gender.

I can imagine how our girl v. boy rivalry might have turned ugly, but it didn't: both sets of kids seemed to be genuinely asserting gender pride. No one was name-calling or otherwise disparaging the other gender.  Plus, Boy and Girl Scouts isn't a particular "charged" dividing line: both groups feature kids connecting with nature, crafts, and one another, none of which are bad things, nor do they in any way try to imply superiority over anyone else. There are times and places in our society in which most of us accept division by gender, when we feel that there is value in it; everything from separate toilets to boy's night out. The moms of Woodland Park, for instance, organize retreats together a couple of times a year. I suppose that if some of the dads insisted, they could be included, but I doubt it will ever be an issue because we all see value of the women of our community getting away together without kids or husbands, not because the kids or husbands are bad, but simply because they are not women.

Our brief schoolyard rivalry did not turn ugly, nor did it threaten to. It struck me as normal and healthy: a moment to stand with those with whom we share a gender and feel good about it, together. 

But, to the question: What if it had been, say, Asian-American kids v. European-American kids? Would I have responded in such a hands-off manner?

I doubt it. I mean, if the kids somehow enacted a racial divide in a way that felt like the essential equality of Boy v. Girl Scouts, I just might let it run its course, but I simply can't imagine a way that race can play out like that. When people divide up by race, it's almost always icky, if not nasty. Celebrating heritage is one thing: insisting that something about that heritage is universally superior, or that another ethnic heritage is inferior, makes it racist. It's like families. Mine is awesome. There are a lot of things about my family life that makes it perfect for me, but I understand that it would be imperfect for others. That's how we all are, I hope. If I go around, however, insisting that my family somehow makes me superior to you, then I'm being a jerk, which is a synonym for the word "racist."

The thing is, young children are very rarely jerks. I've never met a preschooler who tried to make himself feel good by running down someone else, which is a central personality trait of most racist jerks. It's a learned behavior -- racist jerks come from racist jerk families. Racist jerk families don't enroll their kids in cooperative preschools, which is why I don't believe I'll ever be confronted with the scenario my anonymous reader proposed.

But what if I was? What if there was a group of European-American kids chanting . . . What? White Power? And a group of Asian-American kids chanting, again, What? I mean the whole set up is impossible for me to envision. Preschool-aged children, without the perniciousness of having come from a racist jerk family, simply can't get their brains around this idea. Research shows that even very young children can identify certain racial markers, but most of them simply can't actually see race in terms of good or bad without coaching by important adults in their lives. This year, when my 5's class was discussing race as part of our Martin Luther King, Jr. conversation, the whole idea of race was a new one for most of the kids. These are all children of either European, Asian, or Latin-American backgrounds, yet several of the kids identified themselves or others as "black." One of the kids still insists that he's black, even though it's not a fact supported by his actual ethnic heritage. There's something beyond skin color at work in how the children at Woodland Park understand, or don't understand, race. But none of them seemed to have any particular values attached to their own race or those of others. In other words, it's simply not a front-burner topic where we live.

I would say, if you have a group of preschoolers shouting racial epithets at one another, you have a problem that goes far beyond your school. And you should absolutely step in.

Why, then, is gender different? In many important ways, it isn't. There are sexist jerks just like there are racist jerks. But gender is different because gender is a biological fact, whereas race is not; while it is a social fact. The overwhelming majority of us are biologically a gender, while racially we're all half-breeds of one kind or another. I come from a family which is a Euro-mix that includes Danish, English, French and Irish, while my wife is mostly of Hungarian-Irish-German-Jew extraction. Our daughter is . . . Whatever she says she is, frankly. But we are unquestionably a family of one male and two females (five if you count the dogs). 

Gender really tends to come into focus at around 4-5 years-old and intensifies until around 7-8, a point by which most children figure out that there's a lot of leeway within the stereotypes. Under my watch, most girls go through some sort of "princess" phase. For some, it lasts for days, while others explore the idea for years, taking it into adulthood. Under my watch, most boys go through some sort of "superhero" phase. For some, it lasts for days, while others explore the idea for years, taking it into adulthood. I tend to think of these as the great gender myths that underlie Western culture. Young children are driven to make a study of these myths, work that is as serious as any study there is, one that some of us spend our entire lives researching. I think when kids separate themselves by gender and chant "Boy Scouts" or "Girl Scouts," that's what they are doing. It's both science and art, which is, after all, nothing more than the study of archetype; an exploration of the polar extremes of gender roles as a starting point of understanding ourselves and others.

When it's about race, however, we are not dealing with any sort of "real" dividing lines. Our first black president had a white mother. We call him African-American, but other than a few cosmetic similarities,  the only thing that makes him "like" your average Kenyan man are the things that make all humans similar. What we call race are a collection of superficial markers around which some of us, racists, have built theories that assert there are some sort of deeper differences with regard to intelligence or other capabilities. Real scientists, however, find the whole idea of race to be a social fabrication, one with no use other than to divide people. There are positives to be gained by sometimes dividing ourselves up by gender, there is nothing but negatives in dividing by race.

Race may not be real, but racism is. Racism is a weed to be eradicated. The children at Woodland Park have very little experience with racism, at least compared to children in other parts of our nation where I know that schoolyards are often divided along racial lines. I grew up in schools in which the black kids and white kids barely mixed. When my family moved to Oregon in my early teen years it was at first quite confusing to be suddenly in a world in which people weren't divided up by racial markers, but rather by economic ones that I really didn't at all understand or even "see" for a long time. Having come into contact with classism so late in life, I tend to have far less baggage about it than I do with racism, about which I still have some knee-jerk tendencies I'm working to unlearn.

So, all of this to say that I don't worry so much that the children I teach will grow up to be sexist jerks. We are a cooperative community of strong, thoughtful, nurturing, intelligent women and men who are raising strong, thoughtful, nurturing, intelligent children, and whose lives bely gender stereotyping that disproves many of the media fueled lies. I also don't worry that they will grow up to be racist jerks, if only because the racism in our community is buried quite a ways underground, complicated by economics, not showing up in ways that preschool aged children can understand -- not in a way that would lead them, at least, to stand in racially divided groups chanting at one another. I'm not saying that none of us are sexists or racists, but we all hope to not be, which is something important.

I've often confessed to living and teaching in a bubble. While I don't see evidence that the kids I teach are judging one another based upon skin color, I do know that children elsewhere have been taught to. 

I'm aware that both racism and sexism are pervasive and deeply ingrained, even institutionalized, in our society. I've made it all sound too simplistic here. Today, I've written about the preschoolers I know within the context of our little school. Please don't think that I'm trying to suggest that we have somehow found a way to be "above" it, or that I'm ignorant of the wider world and the depth of the problems. We simply live in a place at a time that our adult racism is not overt enough to come into the children's day-to-day play. As several of the commenters on the Girls v. Boys post suggested, the important thing is that we engage in dialog on these important and complex topics. I hope I've sparked you to think about racism and sexism today. And, no doubt, I've made some people angry. If you have anything to add, dispute, or clarify, please do so in the comments. I will, however, be moderating the comments and will not post any that I feel are racist, sexist, or that call out other commenters in unkind ways.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Inventing A Board Game

Last year, our Pre-K group spent some time exploring great paintings, one of which was work called Rhythm of Straight Lines by Mondrian. At the time we were looking for the stories told by the paintings, and while we didn't feel that this one made much of a story, it did remind us of roads and inspired us to try to imitate it.

In the course of our child-lead curriculum, we never got around to this project this year, but I did have a couple pre-made leftover Mondrian-style grids tucked away in the storage room, which I came across in my annual quest to use things up during the last few weeks of school. I put them on tables outdoors with crayons and a couple of the kids took the time to color them in. 

As they lay there on the table, awaiting their destiny as part of one of next year's classes, Elena began to pick at some of the tape I'd used to make the grid and discovered that there was a matching white grid underneath the black one. As she began to carefully pull it off so as to not tear the mat board, other kids joined in. Like last year's, class, they decided they were looking at either roads or a maze.

One of the unexpected cool things about my family's downscaling move to an apartment a couple years ago is that I now live in a building with a garbage room that is often a great place to exercise my inner middle class bag lady. Last week someone, perhaps in the wake of a failed "game night," had thrown out brand new editions of the board games Monopoly and Life. Treating them as cadavers, I harvested all the little plastic and metal pieces, figuring, if nothing else, they would make interesting collage material. As the kids drove their fingers around the roads they were unearthing, it occurred to me that the Monopoly houses and Life car-pawns were nicely scaled for this little world.

What I'd not anticipated, although I suppose I should have, was that some of the kids, at least, knew they were looking at the parts of board games. "I know this game!" As the kids figured out what they wanted to do with everything, I moved on to other things for awhile, returning to find Cooper and a couple of other kids busily engaged in spinning the spinner and taking turns moving their cars around the game board, having invented a game of their own.

The following day, in an attempt to find a way to both extend and broaden the invented board game play, I experimented by putting all the parts on an indoor table. On an adjacent table was an actual "proper" board game, Monopoly Junior, where I stationed a parent-teacher to help manage it. I guess you could say it was a kind of experiment. 

I don't know if I learned anything from the experiment, although it did seem that the kids who have tended to choose "good guy" roles in our dramatic play were more likely, at least on this day, to choose Monopoly Junior, while the ones who favored "bad guy" roles had more fun with the more rule-flexible invented game. It's probably nothing, but now I have a hypothesis to test, but it will, sadly, have to wait until next year.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

"Winning" An Argument

At a backyard barbecue yesterday afternoon an older woman named Carlita, her own children close to my age, not knowing anything about me or my profession, launched into a well-practiced monologue on what's wrong with kids these days, the centerpiece being that they are no longer taught to respect anything or anyone. We've probably all heard this one before. One of the examples she gave of how we're letting the kids down was how sloppily teachers dress for school. In her day, the young women wore skirts or dresses, "nylons," and heels ("clunky heels, but heels"). 

I let her finish most of her piece, although stopped her from going into a full-on diatribe about how horrible teachers are by admitting that I'm a teacher myself, one who works in torn jeans and t-shirts. I then agreed that children aren't as respectful now as they were back in the olden days. This, I've learned, is one of the keys to "winning" these sorts of cocktail party disagreements: start by finding something with which you can agree, then give them something with which they can agree right back. Humans might like to disagree with one another when we're all sort of anonymous, but when we're face-to-face most of us crave agreement.  So I said, "Of course, respect is something you have to earn no matter how you dress."

Oh yes, she agreed with that wholeheartedly, echoing, "You have to earn respect." This was our starting point, then: kids aren't as respectful as they used to be and that respect has to be earned. 

I'd earlier learned that she had, that morning, been driven by one of her sons up to Seattle from Vancouver, Washington, three hours to the south, where she had lived in the same house for over 40 years, so I figured what I was about to say next would be something else with which she would readily identify: "I think one of the biggest problems is that too many kids are being raised without their grandparents around."  

"When we were growing up," I continued, including her as a peer, "our parents could count on grandparents to help them out, or even aunts and uncles, but families today are so spread out. I think it leads to a lot of parents feeling isolated and alone with their kids, especially when they live in a suburb." I waved my hand to indicate the backyard in which we were sitting, "And then their spouses head off to work in the city each morning leaving them all alone with the kids.

"What are they going to do? It's mom and children all day long. The kids grow up as the center of mommy's universe, so why wouldn't they grow up to believe everything revolves around them?" We then chatted back and forth about the value of multi-generational families, of how grandparents are always ready to jump in, of how 12-year-old girls (cousins and older siblings) once served as mommy's helpers, and how vitally important it is for kids to be loved by as many people as possible.

We were nodding and agreeing by this time, kindred spirits. That's when I said, "I feel sorry for these moms who don't have their extended families around. So many of them don't have a proper support system. They never get time for themselves and many of them don't even realize how much they deserve it. They think that's what being a parent has to be: always putting their needs after their children's. Kids notice everything. They come to believe that this is the way it's supposed to be. It's hard to learn to respect others when you've learned that your needs always come first."

She got it. "Exactly!"

"My wife and I were lucky to have two sets of grandparents within 20 minutes of our home. They were always willing to watch their grandkid for a few hours or a weekend or a week. Not only is it great for the kids to spend time with other adults who love them, but it shows them that sometimes mommy comes first. I think that's what we're talking about. We want kids to learn respect, but it's a two-way street. When we were young, we tended err too much on the side of respecting the adults. Now maybe we err too much on the side of respecting the kids. We're all human beings here: we're all worthy of respect and it starts with respecting ourselves.  

"At school the kids know that sometimes their needs come first, but just as often mine do. I respect them and they respect me. Sometimes we do what they want to do and sometimes we do what I want to do. I think that's the only way anyone has ever earned respect."

"Exactly!" she said again. By now, she was entirely on my bandwagon, so I huddled up with her, we two thoughtful people out there in lawn chairs, and in a conspiratorial tone, said, "You know what drives me crazy? Obedient kids, because they grow into obedient adults."

She chuckled with me, "Don't I know it."

"I want kids to question my authority. I want them to challenge me." I was now talking about the opposite of the kind of "respect" Carlita had originally spoken about. I told her about how I teach kids to think for themselves, how I don't want them to take my word for anything I can't prove, how our school trusts kids to make their own rules, how our whole democracy would be better off if we raised our kids to be rabble rousers. By the time we were done, she had, at least for the purposes of our backyard party conversation, always been an advocate for a progressive, play-based education, and a parenting style of mutual respect.

As we wound up our conversation, I said, "I guess if you want kids to show respect, you have to respect them." Then I left her with my favorite James Baldwin quote: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." 

Carlita said, "I'm glad to know there are still teachers like you. It gives me hope for the future." 

We both laughed when I replied, "Even if I don't wear nylons and heels?"

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Friday, May 24, 2013

What You Will Say Next

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is to not hate them, but to be indifferent to them. ~George Bernard Shaw

Seattle, with it's mild climate and liberal politics, is home more than it's share of homeless people, or at least homeless people who spend much of their time being visibly homeless, out on the streets and in our parks. As I write this in the early morning, I can look out my living room window and count a half dozen piles of blankets or sleeping bags dotting the lawn of the park across the street. In a couple hours, when I take the dogs out for their first walk of the day, those bedding pyres will still be there. Some of them will stay there until the late afternoon.

There's one guy in particular who has been there all spring. He sets up right by the sidewalk, under a large maple, but otherwise out in the open. Like I do, he sleeps with his feet outside the blanket, usually curled into a loose fetal position. At least that's what it looks like from the shape of his pile of bedding. He sleeps, however, with his head all the way under his blanket. I'll bet, in its way, it's cozy in there, dark, the cold world shut out. I wonder if he's able to imagine he's sleeping in a proper bed. I wonder if he imagines his mommy, any mommy, making a bed for him in her lap, in the circle of her arms, making it cozy, dark, shutting out the cold world. He's not one of those who sleeps the day away. Usually, by around 8 a.m., he's sitting up, propped up, still partially under his blankets, sitting there a few feet back from the sidewalk, watching the world. I imagine I see philosophy in his face, or maybe it's a Buddha-like peace I want to find there, as if he hasn't wound up here by accident, but has rather chosen it like one of those dharma bums Kerouac wrote about. One day I saw him across the street playing basketball by himself on the public courts there and he almost looked like anyone else. Other times I've seen him carefully washing out articles of clothing in the public drinking fountain, the one the skate board kids use when they get over heated, and I take comfort (as if my comfort matters) in the idea that he is still enough with us to be concerned about the daily matters of hygiene. But then there have been those other times when he shouts angry nonsense at non-existent tormenters.

A couple weeks ago I was contemplating a man in a pressed shirt, slacks and a tie who was approaching me on the sidewalk across from the park. As we walked toward one another, I noticed he limped, moving more slowly than most of the "suits" that populate our neighborhood during the day. (Those guys always seem to be in a hurry.) As he got closer I saw he had his graying hair pulled back into a ponytail tied at the back of his head. His face was heavy. His beard crudely shaven. That's when I recognized him as one of the guys who sleep in the park. From a distance he'd looked like anyone else, a man with something to do, places to go, people to meet. As he passed me I saw he was likely on his way to return the interview suit he'd borrowed from one of the churches or other social agencies in the neighborhood who help these guys. I can hope otherwise, but I'm sure he didn't get the job, not in this economy, not with all those younger people out there who own their own clothes and sleep in real beds.

A few days ago, as I cycled along Fairview Avenue near where it intersects with Eastlake, a leathery woman of no age at all, a woman who seems to be living on the floating walkway just under the bridge, stood on the sidewalk and wordlessly reached out toward me as I raced past, her face cracked with some sort of plea. I expect her immediate concern was money, but I know she really wanted a lap-bed in which to curl up and find a little peace.

Last week as I ran errands, I spotted a guy with his blankets pulled up over his head, on a dirty triangle of grass in the middle of a busy intersection in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. I hope he was at least dreaming of a lap-bed.

Yesterday, a man sitting on a low wall smoking a cigarette suddenly began to rock violently as I passed, silently, but with a face full of anguish for several seconds, before returning as suddenly as he'd started to a pose of quiet contemplation.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by it all, which I suppose is why most of us, most of the time, pull the covers up over our own heads. It'll be easier to not think about them next fall when the rain and cold return and they can not longer sleep out in the open in the park. It'll be easier to forget they're my neighbors when they're tucked away under bridges, and in alley ways, and in the doorways of vacant buildings.

I've been told by people I trust that for every "street person" we see there are a dozen other homeless people who are fortunate enough, or proud enough, or sane enough, or still motivated enough to find some kind of shelter for the night. These are the ones who are too busy taking care of their children, or looking for work, or generally trying to survive to hide out in the open on park lawns or panhandle at busy intersections with cardboard signs. I've been told by those same people that the "street drunks" are also not representative of the homeless who live among us, many of whom we pass everyday without thinking anything other than, perhaps, that there's a fellow human with a lot on her mind.

A huge percentage of these people are, however, mentally ill (between 25-40 percent; compiling statistics about this population is notoriously challenging), and if you combine that with those suffering from alcohol and drug addictions, often no doubt attempts at self-medication, well over half are in one way or another not of their right minds at any given moment.

This is not a post about policy, although I can think of dozens more humane than the ones in place now, nor is it a plea for you to get involved, although if you are so moved The National Alliance To End Homelessness is a good place to start. This isn't even a post about feeling sympathy or empathy.

This is just a post about noticing these people. Looking them in the eye. Saying, "Good morning." I know, I know, there is so much more we should do, but this is something we can do. We may not have the courage to offer them our lap, but we can notice them, even if they've forgotten how to smile back. And they did once know how, because they were once children and all children smile, but it's something you unlearn after awhile if no one responds in kind. This is a post about answering our children honestly when they ask about the sleeping bags in the park; they are sick, they are sad, they are homeless, they are overwhelmed.

And when our children want to help them, because when you tell them the truth, they will want to help . . . Well, I guess this is also a post about what you will say next. 

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Too Many Babies

(I'd originally planned to combine this girl-boy story with the one of dramatic play gender "conflict" from yesterday, but wasn't clever enough to make it work in the time I'd allotted myself for blogging. The children involved in this story are many of the same kids from yesterday's story.)

"We're Chinese sisters." The girls had dressed themselves up in the Chinese robes from our costume rack and had taken up residence in the top of our loft with all of our everyday babies.

I said, "You have a lot of babies."

"We're waiting for them to find mommies and daddies."

"They don't have mommies and daddies?" I repeated sadly.

"It's okay because we're taking care of them."

"We're taking care of them, but we're only 12-years-old . . . Well, I'm 12-years-old, I'm the big sister, and she's 8-years-old, she's the little sister." They both affected wee and pitiful faces; almost tragic.

I said, "That's awfully young to take care of so many babies."

"That's why we're helping them find mommies and daddies. We're only teenagers."

"We're not teenagers. Teenagers have to be older than us."

There was short debate on the topic of teenagers and whether or not that was old enough to be a mommy or daddy. They finally agreed they were not teenagers, allowing them to set aside their questions about the propriety of teenage parents.

That settled, I asked, "Could I be the daddy of one of those babies?"

"Sure, do you want a boy baby or a girl baby?"

"Hmm, I think I'll take one of each."

The girls looked at one another as if searching for a silent agreement before answering, then, "You can only have one. We have to save some for the other daddies."

"Yeah, you can only have one."

"Okay, well I guess I'd like a girl baby."

The girls began checking our anatomically correct dolls, "This one has a boy bottom. Boy bottom . . . Here's a girl bottom." They handed me my baby.

It was about at this time that a group of boys marched into the lower level of the loft, acting as if their intent was to crowd into the small space where the girls had set up their adoption agency. I wanted them to recognize that there was already a game taking place in the space, so I summarized, "These are Chinese sisters. They have a lot of babies looking for mommies and daddies. This is the baby they gave me. I'm the daddy." Then to the girls, "How do I take care of a baby?"

They looked at one another again, then, "You have to already know how to take care of a baby. You have to feed it and change its diapers and hold it."

"That sounds like a lot of work."

She shrugged, "Babies also cry a lot and you have to give them stuffed animals and rattles."

I said, "But what if I don't have any stuffed animals and rattles?"

At this point, without saying a word to one another or us, the boys climbed back down from the loft, leaving us to continue our conversation about taking care of babies. As we began to come to the realization that perhaps Teacher Tom was not equipped to take care of a baby, the boys returned, this time with their arms full of stuffed animals. "These are for the babies."

Before long, all of our stuffed animals were in the top of the loft. The girls arranged them around the babies.

As I continued talking with the girls, I heard the boys talking behind me:

"There aren't any more stuffed animals."

"The babies need rattles."

"There aren't any rattles."

"We'll have to make them."

That morning, we were playing with the cardboard rings left over from spent masking tape rolls. The boys figured out how to slip one inside another, creating a kind of sphere. These were the rattles.

As I continued talking with the girls, both discovering and helping to create this world of Chinese sisters with too many babies, the boys came and went in a steady stream, delivering rattles to the top of the loft.

When I walked away, the rattles had given way to plastic food from our play kitchen, as the village took on the task of raising all those babies who didn't have mommies or daddies.

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