Thursday, July 01, 2021

And Not Some Day, But Right Now

One of Woodland Park's traditions is to celebrate "special days." These special days are often connected to birthdays and they involve bringing in a collection of photos mounted on a piece of cardboard. The photos could be of anything, but the idea was to share about your life. Typically, the child sits on our "special day throne" and talks us through the photos of people, places, and things they love. The photo boards are then hung in the classroom for a period of weeks, giving everyone a chance to ask questions.

The kids had all gone outside, leaving me alone in front of one of these special boards with the child's mother. We were chuckling over the fact that her daughter had insisted upon representing her both of parents with photos from their own childhoods. 

"I was 14 in that picture," she told me. We were looking at a grainy snapshot of a young woman standing under a shade tree, smiling at the photographer. "Look at me. I was so . . ." She paused in mid-sentence searching for the word she wanted to use. "I was so normal. I thought I was fat, but look at me. I wasn't fat at all. I've told myself I was fat my whole life, but I wasn't. And now I am."

It didn't strike me as an odd confession because these are the kinds of conversations one has around the cooperative. When you're raising children in a community, openness is natural. 

"It was a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It's a story that lots of us learn to tell about ourselves, a tale of not living up to cultural ideals, of falling short, of not being normal. Indeed, I don't believe I've ever met anyone whose self-talk is about being normal. I wonder, should such a person exist, would they be the most or least mentally healthy person on earth? It's an interesting question because, when I look around the preschool, when I look around at the wider world, I see that normal is definitely not normal. Or rather, maybe normal is only a story we can tell ourselves about ourselves in the past tense as this mother was doing as we looked at that smiling 14-year-old. "I was so normal," she said. What she didn't say was, "And now I'm not," but she implied it when she said, "And now I am."

Most of what we think of as reality is, at bottom, stories we tell ourselves. Money, gender, race, and property are as much stories as Cinderella, Star Wars, or Wuthering Heights, the only difference is that, as a culture, we've labeled the former as facts, while dismissing the latter as fiction.

When a child tells me, in all earnestness, that he is a fairy or she is a superhero, who am I to say that their story isn't true? Should I worry that this child is self-deluded? Should I laugh at their cute innocence? Or should I listen with my whole self to these prophetic stories? It seems impossible that a child would grow into an adult fairy or superhero, but maybe that's only because my own stories are so damned normal. Or maybe it's because I falsely believe the story about time, the one that tells me to look to the future for truth, as if a child only exists as a prospective adult. Maybe that blinds me to the non-fiction of right now, which is, at least around the preschool, a place that is always well-populated with fairies and superheroes.


This, I think, is the great power of Learning Stories, the model of "assessment" that Wendy Lee told us about at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. It's an acknowledgement of the transformative power of stories. These are stories that adults tell about the children in their lives, focused on strengths, rather than deficits. They are hero stories, full of quests and magic, told to the child about the child, and read to them over and over until they can read them for themselves. They are stories of being anything but normal, of being exceptional, and not at some point in the future, but right now. 

As Wendy tells us, these stories live on to be told to children, grandchildren, and, I've no doubt, grandchildren. These stories make no promises about a fictional future, but rather tell us about the non-fiction of an ever-present now, in which each child, each human is, in this moment, becoming themself, be that a fairy, superhero, or whatever else one aspires to be. And not some day, but right now.


The free live portion of Teacher Tom's Play Summit is over, but it's still not too late to join Wendy, Lisa Murphy, Akilah Richards, Maggie Dent, Raffi, Suzanne Axelsson, Peter Gray and the rest of us. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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