Thursday, March 16, 2017


They are best friends, two girls who seem to love little more than being together. Younger sisters of older brothers, carpool companions, they share their fondness for certain stereotypical "girl" things, like princesses and ponies. Lately, they have been spending their mornings huddled together under the loft, just the two of them, in their gowns, playing with stuffed animals or our collection of My Pretty Ponies.

Sometimes other three and four-year-olds seek to join them in their games, squeezing into the area. The girls are accommodating, even making room for them, but the presence of a third wheel tends to break the intimacy of their face-to-face play as they turn shoulder-to-shoulder to engage the newcomer, usually just listening to what they came to say, perhaps sharing a toy or two, but otherwise politely tolerating their presence until they move along. They make no effort to exclude others, but their love for one another creates a kind of bubble that the rest of us can rarely enter when they are inside.

From a teacher's perspective, they are quiet, sweet, and undemanding, mostly taking care of their own business. They have their conflicts both between themselves and with others, but these are rare. It would be easy to just leave them alone, which is mostly what I do, perhaps checking in with them now and again, but otherwise directing my attention toward the squeaky wheels which is, for better or worse, what most teachers spend their days doing. Lately, however, I've become curious about what exactly they're doing under there in their fancy dress. 

I've taken my moments to position myself near them with the intent of eavesdropping, but they speak so softly, so closely, that it's impossible in our active classroom. So for the last couple weeks, I've been taking the role of third wheel, dropping to my knees and sneezing in with them, which is a technique I feel better about because there's nothing secretive about what I'm doing, like with the eavesdropping. Of course, they are then fully aware of my presence, which means their inside-the-bubble game stops as they turn to deal with me the way they deal with their interloping peers, shoulder-to-shoulder. In physics they call it the "observer effect," whereby the act of observing changes the phenomenon being observed.

Of course, I should just leave them alone, I suppose, which is what I mostly do, but my curiosity and my understanding of my role as teacher to include being a researcher, compelled me again yesterday to attempt it once again. This time they greeted me by introducing themselves, in character, "I'm Moana and she's Anna."

"No, I'm not Anna, I'm Elsa."

"Oh, that's right Sweetie, you're Elsa."

And in that give-and-take, they fell into their bubble as if I wasn't there, or more accurately, as if I had fallen in with them.

"Yes, Sweetie, I'm Elsa," then holding her pony the way one does when using a handheld avatar, she said, using a higher pitched voice, "Mommy Sweetie, when will I grow up?"

And her best friend held up her own pony to reply, "You're already growing up, Sweetie. You're a big girl now."

"But I'm just a teenager, Sweetie."

"Yes Sweetie, but some day you'll be a grown-up like me."

Not wanting to disturb anything I slowly rolled back onto a pillow to listen. Their conversation was gentle, each of them making room for the other. When one of them said, "I want to be the mommy now," her friend replied, "Okay, Sweetie," and they easily reversed roles.

After a few minutes, they looped me into their play, proving that they had not forgotten me, but rather included me, "Teacher Tom, you can be the baby now." They handed me a small pony. Their ponies had wings, whereas the one they handed me had lost it's wings, leaving only a plastic nub on its back. They continued to talk with one another, even as I sat with them holding my wingless, baby pony. Their ponies were planning a picnic, one that would involve flying. I thought they had forgotten the baby, but on cue they turned their ponies to the one I held. "It's time to go now, Sweetie . . . Oh, but look, the baby hasn't grown its wings yet!"

"Oh dear, Sweetie, how is it going to fly to the picnic?"

"We'll have to carry it, Sweetie."

"Yes Sweetie, we can carry it on our backs," and with that they took the baby from me as all three ponies rose into the air. "Don't be afraid, Sweetie, we won't let you fall," their love story ascending into the more rarefied air.

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