Monday, May 22, 2017

The Junk House

On Wednesday, a couple of guys in our 4-5's class decided they were going to remove the walls of the playhouse. It's designed for this, giving kids the ability to create windows and doorways wherever they want them, an innovation of one of our grandfathers. Before long, their enthusiasm had drawn in another handful of kids. It's not easy to remove the boards that make up the walls: they have to be slid up and out and often get stuck when they become askew which happens quite easily.

There was a lot of struggling and teamwork and when they were done opening up those walls, they weren't ready for it to be over so they moved on to filling the lower level of the playhouse with anything they could move: planks of wood, car tires, traffic cones, rocks, logs, furniture, gutters, shovels, pails . . . Whatever wasn't nailed down got shoved in there.

They were calling it the "junk house" and they were quite proud of it, cautiously climbing atop the pile, their heads touching the ceiling. Over the course of their project, their collective mood went from industrious to a kind of rowdy mischievousness, continually calling out to me and the other adults to "look," as they chuckled. I think some of them half expected to be scolded or at least be told they were "making a mess." The only "correction" they received from me was when I discovered that the wireless speaker we use to play dance music for the stage went missing. Figuring it was at the bottom of the pile, I used my smartphone to play a song and sure enough, we heard the frenetic strains of Everything is Awesome!!!!! from under the rubble.

Other than to ask them to dig out the speaker, my calm, non-judgmental demeanor belied what was going on inside. Normally, I wouldn't have cared, but in this case I was fully aware that on Thursday night we were hosting several dozen parents for our Summer Program orientation meeting (there are still spots in a few of the sessions if you are local and interested), people who had signed up to allow their "babies" to play on our playground this summer, many of whom were new to our school and more than a little nervous already. Our junkyard playground has a certain edgy charm when all the odds and ends are spread out over the space, but when presented as a big, tippy pile like this, something that could easily result in heavy objects sliding off and landing on the noggin of an unsuspecting two-year-old, I can imagine that it is somewhat less charming. In other words, while the kids played, I was thinking about marketing.

I finally told myself that it would be okay: either I would tell the story of how the junk house came to be as an illustration of the sorts of thing their kids might get up to this summer, or, the option I was leaning toward, taking advantage of the two hours between the end of school on Thursday and the start of the meeting to take care of it myself.

On Thursday morning, the kindergarteners were, as usual, the first to arrive, and they were not happy with the junk house. "Did you see what the little kids did to the playhouse, Teacher Tom?" I told them I had, then suggested that the might want to "fix it," a hopeful suggestion that they did not take up. Later that morning, however, our 3's class had the playground to themselves. They too had complaints about the junk house. When I suggested that they fix it "because we have a meeting tonight," one of the parent-teachers asked, "Do you want me to start emptying it out?"

And so she began to methodically remove planks and tires and cones and rock and logs from the playhouse. Her work drew in first another adult and then several of the kids who spent the next half hour un-doing the work of the older kids from the day before. When the kindergarteners returned to the playground, they joined the effort. When the space was empty, they finished by "washing" the floor by dumping several buckets of water on it.

As they worked, I found myself humming the late, great Tom Hunter's song, Build it Up and Knock it Down. The ancient Greeks had their myth of Sisyphus, a character condemned to an eternity of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again. So much of what we do in life is like pushing that boulder: we make our beds each morning only to unmake them at night; we go to work, return home, then return to work again; we fill the trash can, throw it out, then refill it again. It's easy to see it all as meaningless repetition, but when I play with children, I don't feel that at all. On the contrary, filling it up and emptying it out, turning it on and turning it off, pushing it up and letting it roll back down, makes up the core of what children do all day when left to play as they see fit. Adults unlearn it, I think, as we become brainwashed into the cult of productivity. We learn instead to find it, at best, boring. Children, however, never tire of it. "Build it up and knock it down and build it up again/Knock it down and build it up and knock it down again."

The philosopher and author Albert Camus wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. The concluding line has stuck with me for decades:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This is what the children know. I will not be at all surprised if they rebuild their junk house this morning. And I won't have to imagine them happy because I know they will be.

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