Thursday, September 09, 2021

An Inevitable And Awesome Responsibility

I learned the song like this:

Here comes Uncle Jesse
Riding through the fields
With his horse and buggy
And he knows just how you feel

He's hollering . . .

Stand up curly hair
Stand up curly hair
Jump up and down curly hair
Jump up and down curly hair
Sit down curly hair
Sit down curly hair

Here comes Uncle Jesse . . .

There are many versions, I know, but this is the one we sing. If you identify yourself as having curly hair you stand up and jump up and down (or swing your hips or clap your hands). The next time around Jesse might call out "straight hair" or "red shirt" or "tall," more or less objective descriptors and it's left up to the children to determine whether or not to include themselves. Some children identify with every category, while others study themselves with each holler to assess the truth. 

I recently renewed my passport. It includes these kinds of descriptors of me: height, weight, eye color, gender, date of birth, place of birth. There's also a crude photo and together this functions as my "identification." Of course, there is much more to me than that, but it's by these traits that strangers in foreign lands will identify that it's me and not someone pretending to be me. Amongst these "facts" about me, there is only one that starts to approach, however, what I would consider to be the real me. That's my address. It's unique among the other descriptors in that it represents something other than an accident of birth, but rather a choice I've made.

My address stands there amongst the whims of fate as an introduction into the story I'm telling about myself. Those accidental descriptors are sufficient to let the world know that I exist in a certain place at a certain time, but the rest, the story of me, is who I am through time. I was once a small boy with fair hair, no beard and illiterate, but as I sit here this morning, I'm a grown man with dark hair, an unshaven chin and, I dare say, well-read. I am, in my story, the same person from the beginning to the present and I'll continue to be the same person until the day I die, even if every single thing about me changes.

I am a story. You are a story. The children in our lives are stories. Those of us who grew up in western culture tend to value the notion that we ought each to be free to tell our own stories while in other cultural traditions one's story is, at least in part, properly told in collaboration with one's family, community, traditions, and even ancestors. 

Children tell us their stories in bits a pieces -- "I'm a fast runner," "I'm good at puzzles," "I'm afraid of bees." Often we can hear the storytelling voice of a parent or other beloved adult -- "I'm a messy eater," "I'm a handful," "I talk too much." A boy once told me, "My mom calls me 'motor mouth' . . . And I am motor mouth!"

As educators, we likewise contribute to the children's stories. It's an inevitable and awesome responsibility. It is, perhaps, our greatest responsibility. When we introduce storylines focused on a child's deficits, when we compel them to dwell upon their flaws, we are writing weakness directly into the passport of their self. On the other hand, when we instead focus on their strengths, we portray them as the hero of their own story.

"Stand up heroes," we sing, and in this telling of the story they all stand up.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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