Tuesday, September 27, 2022

"Children Do Not Like Being Incompetent Any More Than They Like Being Ignorant"

"Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn how to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call "letting the child be a child." ~John Holt

As a two-year-old, Angus found school disappointing. 

"He likes school," his mother told me one day as we watched him play alone in his own corner of the playground, "But he'd like it a lot better without the other kids." She said it with a chuckle, one that told me she appreciated it as an eccentricity. I didn't tell her that it's quite common for children her son's age to feel that way mainly because to do so would have been to risk robbing her of her delight.

As a cooperative school, Angus' mother was always welcome in the classroom and she had so far opted to be there every day. During the first week of school she told me of how she had prepared Angus by telling him that school was a place where he would learn stuff. He had interpreted this to mean that he was going to learn to drive a Metro bus.

He was passionate about Metro buses. He was disdainful of school busses. And he actively disliked the toy school school busses we had in the classroom. He came by his driving interest honestly. Riding Metro was often how he and his mother spent their days away from preschool. Sometimes they would choose a destination, figure out their route, then execute their plan. Other times, they would simply choose a specific line out of curiosity and ride it to see where it went. 

One day, I told him I needed to get to my doctor's office in Lake City after school and he informed me which buses I would need to take to get there from the school. When I told him I had to go home first, he asked me where I lived, then recalculated based on this new starting point. One day as we played together I began to quiz him on bus routes. "Where does the 62 go?" "How about the 550?" As far as I could tell, he knew his stuff.

After absorbing the disappointment of not getting to learn to drive a bus, he settled into a routine of pretending to be a bus driver, sitting alone, usually with his back to the rest of us, employing whatever circular shaped object he could find as a steering wheel. To be allowed into his private world one had to wait until he "stopped" and opened the door for you. His expectation was then that you sat behind him. He  would then speak to you, eyes forward, hands on the wheel. When he was done with you, he would inform you that you had arrived at your stop, then pantomime opening the door to let you out.

As he got older, he began to "drive" his bus around the playground (i.e., holding his steering wheel and running). Before long he had established several stops. Children would often wait at one of the stops for Angus, who would transport them (i.e., the children ran along behind him) to as near their destinations as the route would allow. He spent one morning making construction paper "Orca Cards," which is what Metro calls its passes, and distributed them to his classmates. It irritated him that he had to make new ones the following day. "They're supposed to keep them in their wallets!" He carried a wallet in which he carried his own real and pretend Orca Cards. Eventually, other children were inspired to start their own bus routes and for a time we had an entire mass transit system on our playground.

As he got older, he became interested in other things, including the other kids, but never did take much of an interest in any of our toys. When he played "construction," he eschewed such childish things as blocks and Legos. He needed real "lumber," a hammer, a saw, and "a lot of nails." I once offered him a yellow costume construction worker helmet, but he rejected it with the wave of his hand. When his attentions turned to insects, only the real things would do. No picture books or plastic bugs for him. He was even suspicious of the lady bugs we raised in the classroom from larva because we kept them indoors rather than outdoors. He didn't use the words "natural habitat," but it was there in his assessment of the situation.

Angus expressed himself well, even as a two-year-old which caused the other adults to consider him "advanced" or even "gifted," but the more I got to know him over the years, the more I came to understand him as simply more "natural" than most of his classmates. I once visited his home. There were no toys in evidence, no safety gates, and no childish art taped up on the walls. The only things that might have caused one to suspect a child lived there were the muddy holes dug in the backyard, the odd collections of household items to be spied around the house, and the bedroom wall covered in framed photographs of Metro busses.

Today, when I hear the expression, "Let the child be a child," Angus is the first person who comes to mind.


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