Friday, August 25, 2017

Gray Area

Exclusion is a type of power play that comes up every year. It's a hard one to discuss with children, I think, largely because there's so much gray area in there. I mean, we exclude people every time we close and lock the door to our homes, when we don't pick up that hitchhiker, when the bathroom is occupied, when there simply isn't enough physical space, when we have a girls' or boys' night out. Children know that sometimes we do exclude one another from time to time and figuring out the nuances between appropriate and inappropriate exclusion is the work of many years -- for some the work of a lifetime.

In a larger sense, I would assert that what we value as a society is freedom from arbitrary exclusion, such as that based upon things like religion, skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, while we all also have the right to exclude people who hurt us, who damage our property, who will not play by the agreed upon rules, and engage other "anti-social" behaviors. But even within that there is so much gray area that it's difficult to talk about, especially when we consider that we also value our right to freely associate with whom we choose. One person's righteous rebellion is another person's crime against society. Some see great value in, say, a "women only" club, while others see it as discriminatory. Some find unity through associations based on religion or ethnicity, while others see these same affiliations as nefarious. I have my opinions about these things, and you have yours, but whatever the case we all know that it's an ongoing discussion that, at bottom, is about fairness.

Awhile back, a group of nursing students visited our classroom as part of their coursework, for the purpose of presenting to us about the importance of hand washing. As part of demonstrating the proper technique they wanted to ask for four volunteers. I knew this would be a problem. One of the unspoken, yet bedrock tenants of our community sense of fairness is that everyone who wants a turn gets a turn. I'm glad they prepared me. I didn't want these poor nursing students to bear the brunt of the children's disappointment so I offered to do the selecting. I had made a set of cards, each of which bore the name of one of the children. The plan was to put the cards behind my back and randomly choose one. I explained, "Everyone won't get a turn, but everyone has the same chance to get a turn."

As I expected, several kids objected, although we plowed forward for the sake of the nursing students. I later made a point of returning to the topic, however. I explained as best I could why I felt I'd been fair. One boy in particular disagreed. At first I thought he was basing his opinion on the classic preschool argument that it wasn't fair simply because he had not been selected, but as we dug deeper it was clear that he felt it was unfair that I'd held the cards behind my back. He would have felt better about it had I fanned the cards in front of me, face down, then let everyone see how I'd randomly selected the cards: in other words, more transparency. Fair enough.

Most years, the kids democratically adopt some version of the Vivian Gussin Paley rule experiment from her book by the same name: You can't say you can't play.  I usually have to suggest this particular language, but I try to wait until the children have expressed, in their own words, a desire for some sort of agreement around the powerful ideas of exclusion and inclusion. We wind up with the rule most years, although agreeing to it by no means ends the discussion about what it all means: indeed, it usually marks the beginning of the discussion.

One day shortly after they and their friends had agreed to "you can't say you can't play," a group of boys gathered in a remote corner of the outdoor classroom, a place where children rarely stray, a tight little space up amongst the laurels, steep enough that it's difficult to stand, hemmed in on two sides by a fence. When a younger boy tried to join them, they told him, "You can't come in." I saw it happening, but one of our parent-teachers was closer at hand and she stepped in by reminding everyone of our newish rule. The older boys let the younger boy attempt to fit his body into the tiny, crowded space, but when he found no room, he, on his own, chose to play elsewhere.

I had a brief chat with the older boys myself, re-iterating the rule. One of them said, "But, there's no place for more people."

I answered, "Yes, it does look like your bodies are already taking up all the space."

They huddled up there for quite some time in their tiny, out-of-the-way space. No one else made any effort to join them. Then I heard them chanting, "Please don't enter. Please don't enter. Please don't enter." It made me, from a distance, laugh. Their stern command had become a polite request. It's as good a compromise as I've ever seen. It's an ongoing discussion. Fair enough.

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