Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"Why Doesn't She Share With Them?"

Do children understand fairness? Of course, but usually not the way adults do.

For instance, a few years ago, a group of children were busy tidying up the block area, putting our Duplo blocks into their containers. A boy named River was not helping them, but was, rather, milling about in a way that seemed to me as if he was simply seeking to avoid his share of the work. This didn't seem fair to me, but since no one was complaining I didn't say anything. Then, just as the children tossed the last Duplo into the box, River grabbed the lid, and with a decisive finality, popped it on the box before carrying to to the shelf where it is kept. To me it looked as if he had let others do the work only to steal the glory. Not fair!

He did the same thing the following day and the day following that. It was really getting under my skin and I wondered how long it was going to take before it got under his "harder working" classmates' skins as well. Then the day came that in the midst of tidying up one of the other children found the lid of the box, picked it up and handed to River before going back to work. River waited with the lid until the box was full. The children then called River over to finish the job and everyone sort of celebrated as he self-importantly carried the box to the shelf.

My adult sense of justice saw an unequal division of labor. The children, however, were not only satisfied, but supportive of River's choice of how to pitch in.

This sort of thing happens all the time around the school, where our adult sensibilities are offended while the children are just fine. And too often, I think, we feel compelled to step in as the long arm of the law when it's entirely unnecessary. Every day, I see some children "working harder" than others or even "doing the work of others" without complaint or even the sense that there could be anything wrong with the equation. Of course, the argument could be made that the kids simply haven't learned or developed a "proper" sense of justice, but I tend to look at it, at least in some ways, as a more evolved sense of justice: there is work to be done, it is our community, we do the work. Sure there are always a few kids who opt out of tidying up and other "work," but I've found that if I don't make a big deal about it, the children rarely do either.

I'm reminded of my experiences in reading the classic folk tale The Little Red Hen, in which many if not most of the children struggle with the "moral" that the hen gets to eat all the bread herself because she did all the work. "Why doesn't she share with them?" they ask, or "What if they were too tired to work?" "What if they're hungry?" My adult sense of justice is offended that the lazy animals should insist on a share of the bread, but that ending rarely sits right with the kids. In all my years of reading that story, there are always a few who see "justice" the way adults do, but most do not, and I've never had a child suggest that the "lazy" roommates should suffer as a result. No, most of the time, the kids think that everyone should share the bread.

As one girl put it with a shrug, "Maybe they'll help next time." 

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Giving Life

On a metaphysical level, one could argue that everything is alive or at least a part of a living system. Some scientists even assert likewise, having used sensitive measuring devices to detect traces of the electrical impulses that we associate with life in inanimate objects, but under common usage of the term most of us agree that things like animals and plants are what we call "living," while inert objects like rocks and oil are not.

Unless, you are a child. Then you find life in non-living things: your doll feels sad, your action figures have courage. Even rocks and sticks and sea shells can come to life in your fingers. As I survey our playground or classroom, at any given moment, I see children, both alone and together, pretending that this or that object is talking, listening, and feeling. 

Sometimes they are so immersed in their play that we could swear that they actually believe those things are alive. I do a felt board story that involves a cat eating mice, one by one like a countdown, and every year there are children who become upset on behalf of the mice. I have another one that includes birds in a tree and one boy used to cry each time I folded them up to put them away, convinced that I was hurting the "birdies." As adults, we find it touching, inspiring even, this capacity for empathy. We know that they are still working to understand the line between life and not-life, that some day they'll be like us and know the difference between things that can feel pain, for instance, and those that cannot. We don't correct them because we don't see their instincts as misguided as much as stepping stones along a developmental path.

Most of the children I teach, however, if pressed, know full well that their dolls or rocks are not really alive, and while we adults don't tend to push them in this way, other children sometimes do: "That's not a superhero. That's just a rock!" And they will respond with something like, "I know that, but I'm pretending it's Spiderman." But I'm not sure they are pretending, at least not while they are immersed in it. For those children, those objects, really have come to life as they play. They don't think they are alive, they give them life in the way that a novelist, or even a god, gives life.

As they play like this, their heads close to their fingers, their mouths murmuring, the rest of the world pushed aside, children become their own myth-makers, storytellers at the highest level, creators of a universe. From the outside, we label it "dramatic play," but from the inside it is as real as anything else. Like Neverland or Narnia, these are places that are easily accessible to children, indeed they seem to flow naturally between this world and that, living in both as real places, while we adults in our hideboundness must struggle and strive to even catch a glimpse of the world behind the mirror.

It's another of those things we tend to unlearn as we get older and, sadly, when we do come across those rare adults who have somehow managed to escape childhood with this capacity intact, we tend to ridicule or fear or pity them. But we're the ones to be pitied, I think, because most of us have forgotten that we give life as we play. We've forgotten that we are capable, every day, of being the creators of this world, the cause, not the effect, and if we could only re-discover what the children know we could make so many more of our personal and collective dreams come true.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

"It's Circle Time"

The only time during our school day that we expect all the children to convene together is at circle time: 15-30 minutes (although it can be longer or shorter) during which we come together and practice being in a group, raising our voices together, engaging in discussion, making decisions, telling stories. It's hard for some of the children, I know, taking turns talking, listening to the other children, sitting in a way that doesn't block the views of other kids, keeping our hands to ourselves.

There are some play-based educators who treat their circle times as optional, allowing those who chose not to participate to engage in their own pursuits elsewhere. I get that and have toyed with the idea myself, but have never pulled the trigger because I worry that something important about community building, about democracy, will be lost when some opt out. One of the principles of democratic free schools is that the children are free to pursue their own interests. There are not even classes, unless organized by the students themselves, but meeting attendance is mandatory. I have always thought of our circle times as community meetings and without them, without full participation, I worry that something vital about us will never be discovered: children may always opt out of an activity, but I just can't bring myself to give children the opportunity opt out of us.

Of course, I don't command the children to sit on our checker board rug, but I do make my opinion clear: "It's circle time. You have the whole day to play with toys. Now is when we share our time."

When children begin to talk out of turn, I say, "I can't hear everyone at once. If you raise your hand, you'll get a turn for everyone to hear you."

When children stray away from the rug one of our parent-teachers shadows them, softly reminding them, "That's closed," until they come to the books. If they would prefer to flip the pages (or engage in some other quiet activity), that's an option, but one that rarely holds a child's interest, especially when we are getting things done.

In my role of moderator or facilitator, it's my job to keep things moving, of course, to keep things engaging, to not get bogged down, to make sure everyone gets a turn, to avoid lecturing, to keep in mind that this is their circle time, all without making it a kind of torture for those who need to think with their entire bodies in motion, which is why there is usually a lot of "up and down" involved in a typical Woodland Park circle time.

By the time most kids are 4, if they've been with us for the first couple years (and most have), they get circle time. Not that they "behave" perfectly, of course, but then again I've rarely been in an adult meeting when there isn't some cutting up, some shouting out, some speaking out of turn, some getting up to go to the bathroom, to get a drink or a bite, to take a call, or to pace the hallway. No, when I say they "get it," I mean that they know what we're doing is an important part of who we are, not necessarily intellectually, but at a deeper level, having internalized both the joy and importance of all of us doing something, anything, together.

Best of all is when you begin to see the children during the rest of the day, when the toys are all "open," when we aren't "expected" to take turns or raise hands, when we aren't on the checker board rug, but rather out there in the wider world of the whole school, they gather around and engage productively together. You see them using the skills we've been practicing at circle time, coming together around something they all care about, or are curious about, taking turns, making space for one another, sometimes even spontaneously raising hands. This is how democracy is supposed to work. This is how community is built.

And this is why we still do circle time: not because we need children to practice being in meetings, but rather because there are certain skills required to build a democratic community, skills based in fairness and empathy. When they gather round the workbench or art table and organize themselves, especially in large groups, when I can step back and watch them go, these are perhaps my proudest moments as a teacher. That's when it's no longer about my expectations, but rather it's about theirs, which is the point of why we gather around.

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Doing Exactly What They Ought To Be Doing

He found the cart at the bottom of the hill, checking it first by squatting to get a closer look at the wheels as if to confirm, Yes, it has wheels.

Grabbing the cart with his fist, lacing his fingers through the basket because the handle broke off long ago, he pulled it behind him with one hand. From time to time he stopped to look at his cart as if confirming it was still there before continuing up the hill. He pulled then stopped then pulled then stopped until he was at the top of the hill where he turned around and pulled that cart back down the hill.

As he descended, he tried turning to look at the cart without stopping his momentum. It was challenging. He stumbled several times on the uneven ground without falling, concentrating on the act of keeping track of what was before him while simultaneously keeping track of what was behind him, all while moving back down the hill.

At the bottom he once more turned around and started back up the hill. By now he was quite competent, walking several stumble-free steps at a time while looking backwards, moving forwards. By now he seemed convinced that the cart was always still there: now it was the wheels that drew his interest, those wheels that had drawn him to this project in the first place.

I imagine he was thinking about how they turned, perhaps comparing the four wheels, finding them the same or maybe different. The cart is light enough that he sometimes lifted some of the wheels off the ground. When he looked back at those raised wheels, they were weren't turning at all. It's possible he took that in as well, but I don't know in the same way I don't really know what anyone is thinking or learning or feeling until they tell me, and even then I may not know. 

It's not my job to know. It's my job to be here, watching, thinking. It was my job to provide the hill and the cart and the freedom to pull it up and down the hill.

Yesterday, a grandmother who has been working as a parent-teacher these past couple weeks said to me, "I figured it out. It's like in therapy. Our job is to just to listen to what they say and repeat it back to them." I'm proud that our school is a place where adults have that kind of epiphany.

And when they are not saying anything, when they are pulling a cart up and down the hill, teaching themselves how to do it, asking and answering their own questions, then it's our job to reflect that as well, to say nothing at all, not "Well done" or "Good job" or "Look at you!" but rather to simply watch and wonder and to know that they are doing exactly what they ought to be doing.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Example Is The School Of Mankind

I reckon it would be best if we didn't put so much energy into worrying about our children's futures. It would be best for both us and our kids if we could more often just be here in the present with them, wondering at who they are right now, appreciating the unique human they already are, helping and loving them right now. That would be best, but human parents have never been very good at it. Sometimes we dream big dreams for them, imagining our child, their best qualities flourishing, as a masterful something or other, admired, inspired, passionate, and supremely comfortable in their own skin. But there are times when we fear their worst qualities and fret that they will grow to be spoiled, disrespectful, and lazy, prone to messy bedrooms, selfishness, depression or worse.

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn by no other. ~Edmund Burke

These thoughts enter our heads because we are the adults, cursed with the disease of thinking we have any control over the future. Maybe, we think, if we just lecture our children enough, take them to church often enough, give them enough chores to do, and reward and punish them appropriately we can somehow stave off the bad future and encourage the good. But that isn't the way it works.

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Most of what children learn about being a human being in this world, they learn from the people they most love, but not because they have been drilled, scolded, or otherwise indoctrinated, but rather because they follow their example. If we want children to be kind, we must be kind. If we want them to be tidy, we must be tidy. If we want them to be respectful, then we must be respectful, especially toward them. Indeed, the more we focus on ourselves, on being the person we want ourselves to be, the better we "teach" the most important life lessons. Our children will not learn to pursue their passions, unless the loving adults in their lives set that example for them. They will not learn to be unselfish if their loving adults live with a tight fist. They will not learn to manage their emotions, if their role models haven't figured it out for themselves.

Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That's asking a lot of adults, I know, but if we are going to ask it of our children, we must also ask it of ourselves. And we must also know that we will fail in our role modeling and fail often, but in that too we are role models. Children do not expect their parents to be perfect, but they are always making a careful study of what we do when we make mistakes. Do we give up? Do we blame others? Do we rant and rave? Do we cry and mope? Or are we able to apologize, forgive ourselves, and get back up to try again? The approach we take is very likely the approach our children will, in turn, grow to embrace as their own.

Teaching is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, and by praise, but above all by example. ~John Ruskin

Of course, we all know examples of children, perhaps even ourselves, who have overcome poor role modeling. Perhaps we eat more healthily than our own parents, or make more time for our own kids, or avoid committing felonies. But even then, we can see that is was the examples set, more than the lessons "taught" that informed the future.

No one can predict the future and only fools take their attempts to do so seriously. When we are hopeful about the future we are, as my wife and I like to say, just "spending Yugoslavian dollars." When we worry we are, at best, wasting valuable emotional bandwidth that would be better applied to right now. The only thing over which we know with any certainty is the next 10 minutes and, I've found, it's generally not too hard to be the best me, the person I most want to be, for the next 10 minutes. When we can do that, 10 minutes at a time, we are being the teacher, the parent, our child most needs. And it is from those 10 minute building blocks that the future emerges.

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~Patricia Neal

It's not our job to "teach" our children anything, but rather to love them and to strive to live according to our own expectations, not in the past or future, but right now. The future, as it always does, will take care of itself.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

To Savor What It Means To Be Free

A few days ago, I was waiting for a crosswalk light near the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. It was a Sunday so traffic was light even as the sidewalks were crowded. Waiting with me was a boy and girl, probably brother and sister. They looked to be about eight and six years old respectively. They were walking a dog. We stood together a few seconds before they bolted across the street against the red light. I expected to hear a panicky adult voice calling out after them, but there was none. I watched them cross safely, then begin to cut and dodge across the new, artful landscaping, ignoring the sidewalks, their little dog racing along with them. I thought that certainly they were running to their parents, but when I caught up with them, they were in the small off-leash area that serves as the bullseye of the building's public area, with no supervising adults to be seen.

As a boy, even as a very young boy, we spent our summer days roaming the neighborhood in the company of other children. If we did have interactions with adults other than around meal times, they were brief. It's not that we avoided grown-ups exactly, but there was a general understanding that if we got one of them involved in what we were doing, they would correct our grammar or otherwise scold us, maybe not ending the fun, but certainly putting a damper on it. As for the adults, I can't know for sure, but I imagine they felt more or less the same way, except that from their end, they preferred not being distracted from their important grown-up activities by these little people who forever needed their grammar corrected or to be otherwise scolded.

It was both shocking and refreshing to have witnessed this competent brother and sister out in the world on their own, doing what would have been considered normal in my own childhood, but what now sadly stands out as a rarity.

We spent our days outdoors, in the company of other children, with lots of time, and, perhaps most importantly, unsupervised. Sadly, this generation of children is growing up under almost constant supervision. Whereas our mothers had the luxury of saying to us, "You're driving me crazy: go outside," today's parents are more likely to replace the outdoors with screens because we've come to view children playing unsupervised outdoors as harrowing, even illegal. I doubt our world is more dangerous now that it was back then, indeed the crime statistics indicate the world is actually safer now, but our perceptions of pedophiles, kidnappers, or murders behind every tree has caused us to hold our children so close that we're preventing them from experiencing the freedom that belongs to childhood.

As important adults in the lives of children, it's incumbent upon us to find ways to allow our kids to experience the kind of independence that characterized childhood for most of human history. There is deep and important learning that takes places within the culture created by children out in the world on their own, free from the corrections and scolding. Even our school yards and playgrounds have been designed to prevent this from happening: they are all flat and open with scant opportunities to even temporarily hide from the prying eyes and ears of the grown-ups. It's as if we have not only lost our trust in our fellow adults, but also our own children, as if they unduly risk corruption or injury merely by ducking into a dark nook to tell secrets with their friends.

Sadly, we may never be able to return to the "golden age of childhood" where kids roamed unsupervised, but we can at least work on training ourselves to stand down from our posture as adult, to bite our tongues against the urge to correct or scold or guide or instruct at every moment, trusting that the children, in the company of others, are doing exactly what they ought to be doing, which is, to learn to savor what it means to be free.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Without A Script

I'm not a fan of "climbers" on a school yard playground. I have no issue with them on "destination" playgrounds, places where children tend to play for an hour or two, once in awhile, but when it comes to a place where the same kids convene day-after-day, I've come to see them as wastes of both money and space.

The problem is that these out-of-the-box constructions, no matter how elaborate, no matter how many slides or poles or ladders, have a finite amount of play-value for most children. Yes, they scramble all over them for a day or for even weeks, but eventually the kids play the risk (or the fun) right out of them. From there they tend to either seek ways to make them more risky (or fun) again, which typically involves doing hazardous things like climbing on the "outside" or the "top," resulting in adult scolding and rule-making, or they just abandon the apparatus altogether.

That's what happened with our last foray into the world of climbers. We had never had one for all the aforementioned reasons, but a couple years ago, one of students was taking parkour classes and his mother wanted to install a parkour style climber on our playground. She assured me that this would be different because it wasn't out-of-the-box, that it was adjustable, that the bars could be moved around, even installed at angles, and that she would not be offended if we later decided to remove it. Not only that, but she was willing pay for it, all of which added up to us designating a corner of the playground for its installation.

I'll admit, I was impressed. It did seem to be special and the kids did play with it in throngs, but sure enough, their numbers dwindled until we were going weeks at a time without a single child venturing into the area. It's not that they weren't climbing on stuff -- they were up and down trees, using our ladders, building their own contraptions with boards and shipping pallets -- they just weren't climbing on the official climber. Our space is limited, so after about a year, we replaced it with a "stage," a simple flat platform that gets used every single day.

We didn't, however, remove the five upright poles, the parts that were installed with concrete footings, instead building the stage round them. We also left one horizontal bar across what I was thinking of as the front of the stage, a place from which I envisioned us hanging curtains, you know, like a real stage. The kids never cared for the curtain idea, but those poles, the five vertical ones and the single horizontal one seem to be in use pretty much all day long, every day. Indeed, there is always someone hanging from the horizontal bar, swinging from it, moving across it hand-over-hand. Sometimes there are so many kids wanting to use it that they are forced to organize themselves for turn-taking.

This has been going on for the better part of two years, which surprises me. I mean, one would expect that by now the risk (or fun) would have been played out of those bars, but somehow it's not happening. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that it isn't a climber at all, that those poles, in fact, have no officially declared purpose whatsoever. They stand there rather as relics of the past, remains of a past "civilization," without a script other than that we create for them as we play. Unlike those out-of-the-box climbers with their pre-digested purpose, these poles exist without any meaning other than that with which we, for a time, imbue them. I think that's their attraction.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

"I Want It Out!"

When we replaced the pallet swing with a tire swing, some of the kids were ticked off. They had loved their pallet swing, but some of the adults were concerned about the hard, sharp, spinning and swinging corners of the shipping pallet and felt that replacing it with a tire would reduce the "hazard" without likewise reducing the "risk," or as the kids phrased it, the "fun."

"It's no fun!" more than one of them complained, even before trying out the new swing. Part of the objection was obviously a reaction to change, but when I dug down with a couple of the more vocal children, we determined that the main thing that was missing was a floor. The pallet had provided a nice flat platform upon which several children could sit together while swinging, whereas the tire, with it's hole in the middle forced everyone to sit on the edges which wasn't as much "fun." So we made a floor by cutting several pieces of wood that fit snuggly inside the tire, side-by-side. The individual pieces of wood are loose within the tire, creating the impression that they are removable, but they aren't, at least by preschoolers who don't have the physical strength to bend the edges of the tire the way we adults did while installing them.

This doesn't mean that kids don't try to remove them. Every now and then someone gets a bee in her bonnet about it, making it a project, one that involves the struggle of a puzzler noodling over a frustratingly impossible challenge. Yesterday, a three-year-old girl took it on, while a three-year-old boy objected. They were wrestling over the boards, pushing and pulling and wresting. Their faces were intense with the effort. Every now and then, one of them would say, "I want it out!" to which the other would reply, "I want it in!" It was a classic conflict between two strong-willed children.

Typically, I don't involve myself until and unless the children show me, by resorting to violence, that they need some support. There was some pushing of the shoulder-to-shoulder variety, but I didn't interpret it as violent as much as "persuasive" in nature, especially since they continued to speak with one another, fussily, firmly, even a bit angrily, but still under emotional control, both clearly accustomed and expecting to get their way. The intensity was ramping up, however, so I moved closer.

"I want it out!"

"I want it in!"

They were contending over those boards, one pushing downward, while the other pulled upward. They were getting louder.

"I want it out!"

"I want it in!"

A younger child approached the two, oblivious to their conflict, taking hold of the ropes that suspend the tire. She had earlier discovered pleasure in pushing the swing and was seeking to recreate it. Ignoring the bigger kids wrestling around, she began to gently rock the swing. They continued to contend with one another, but as the swing began to move, they both raised their legs, still saying, "I want it out!" and "I want it in!" albeit with the intensity turned down a notch as they concentrated on taking seats side-by-side on the tire.

With the tire now freely swinging, the older kids fully on board, the younger girl was able to create a steady rocking motion: back-and-forth, back-and-forth. The older kids were no longer wrestling, their hands taking old of the ropes, their bodies balanced for the ride. There were a couple more murmured rounds of "I want it out/I want it in," a kind of wind-down as their conflict fizzled out.

Soon they were giggling together, sharing the swing, no longer thinking about the floor upon which their feet rested as they swung together back-and-forth, back-and-forth. When the younger girl lost interest in her game, the older children took turns pushing one another.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Are You A Boy Baby Or A Girl Baby?"

Children often bring their own toys to school. There was a time when I strongly discouraged this practice, mainly because these toys too often became bones of contention, with the owners forever asserting their ownership while the non-owners evoked our classroom ethic about community property: You can use it when I'm done with it. Today, I'm a fence-sitter. I mean, after all, I bring my own private property to school every day and I'm certainly not going to give the kids turns playing with, say, my phone. I'm going to insist upon my ownership rights. At the same time, if you're going to leave an attractive toy lying around the place, you can hardly expect that your fellow preschoolers aren't going to want to lay hands on it.

So now we sort of play it by ear. You are welcome to bring your toy from home, but you are cautioned that other kids are going to want to play with it, and it's possible it will become lost or broken, and if you are worried about that, you can put it in your personal cubby for safe-keeping. Most kids, most days, opt to store their beloved treasure safely in their cubby, visiting it throughout the day.

There are some kids, however, who have no qualms about sharing their toys from home. Indeed, some have even said to me, "I brought this to share with the other kids," and they do seem to take joy in watching their friends play with them. A few weeks ago, one of these generous spirits brought a naked action figure to school and set him free. Now he's become a part of our playground. Most of the older kids, and their parents, seem to know it's Tarzan, although I keep calling him Hercules because, honestly, without the loincloth, they kind of all look the same. Lately, however, one of the younger children has adopted it as her baby, carrying it around against her chest, soothing it, stroking it, and feeding it the way one does. It's a silly sight to my eyes, this be-muscled tough guy being mothered so gently, but as she has explained, "He's little and he's naked. He's a baby."

We were discussing Tarzan in a group a few days ago, when the subject of his gender came up. "He's a boy baby."

"I don't think he's a boy. He doesn't have a penis."

The group studied the figure for a moment. One of them said, pointing to his groin, "That's his penis," Several of his friends responded, however, that they didn't see a penis although they all agreed that this is where it would be found if there was one.

"But I don't see a vulva either."

"And he has daddy breasts. Mommy breasts are bumpy."

We were silent for some time, studying this anatomically incorrect doll.

"She has long hair like a girl."

"Teacher Tom has long hair and he's a boy."

We were silent again, a moment that was finally interrupted with a bright idea, "Maybe it can be a boy or a girl or whatever you want it to be!"

That decided, there was a murmur of agreement as the group broke up to go its separate ways. Left alone with her baby once more, the "mommy" looked her baby up and down, then asked, "Are you a boy baby or a girl baby?" Then she hugged it to her chest without waiting for an answer.

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