Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Start With The Ending

I have written on a number of occasions how great it is to be a teacher of little ones. While not all days are great, a bad day teaching is better than a good day working at most places.

It isn’t necessarily easy. It is, in fact, quite challenging at times. Managing the curriculum, guiding the group dynamic of 22 young people (and most often 2 adults), communicating with parents, being on committees, meeting with teachers about school business and pushing each other to be the best we can be, writing lessons, assessing student work, writing newsletters, writing progress reports… The list is endless and, with the exception of the very beginning of each school year, I always feel a little behind.

While I am a very rich man by the world standard, one doesn’t go into education for the money. It has many other, far greater rewards.

The staff at my school eats lunch with our kids. The grownups used to sit together to chat or talk shop and try to maintain eye contact and proximity by occasionally walking around near the class tables. It wasn’t all that successful. Now we eat lunch with the kids and, frankly, I like it that way. Unlike many other schools, we also take our own classes to recess, which is another bonus as far as I am concerned. While these 53 year old legs don’t carry me across the playground field as fast as they used to, I can still play a great game of tag, or Across the Ocean, or Monkey in the Middle, kickball or – our current favorite playground game – OBALL. It is a hybrid game that we made up; a cross between Dodge Ball and Capture the Flag. Fast paced, funny, great exercise, an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good sportsmanship, OBALL is consistently one of the class favorites. Well over half of the class plays every time.

We don’t keep score. I change teams after every game. Sides are selected at random so there is never a “last” person picked. Everyone compliments kids on both sides. “That was an awesome catch... You can throw so much better than even a few weeks ago… Great dodge...”

There is a little smack talk as well – second grade style. “Mr. O., you’re going down today!”

“Oh, yeah? Well you are going down first!”

“Oh yeah? Well, you’re going down as soon as we get to the playground!”

“Ohhhh yeah?! You’re going down BEFORE we get to the playground!!”

“OOOHHH YEAH!?! Well you’re going down before we leave the cafeteria!!!” You get the picture. It is all in good fun.

I can’t say that people don’t get hurt during the game. We use perfect playground balls. They are soft, spongy, make a loud noise when they hit (very desirable to make it seem like you took a far greater shot than you actually did). But occasionally someone gets hurt. They trip over roots (the tall pines on the playground are an important part of the game), bump into each other (this happens in every game where people run around), slip, trip, or get a little road rash from the playground dirt. Sometimes, although the balls are pretty soft, if you get hit in the head, it may hurt a little. More often than not when someone gets hit in the head they just shake it off and go on. On most days, everyone is fine.

The other day we were about half way through recess when Bay got hit right in the chin. We stopped the game, crowded around as we always do when someone gets hurt and asked her if she was OK. In less than a minute she said she was fine and was raring to get back into it.

In about 15 seconds Bay was smacked again, this time right in the cheek. Once again, play was stopped and both sides gathered around. This time she shed a tear or two. I asked her if she wanted to play on and she wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know who threw the ball. It didn’t really matter since it was certainly an accident. Bay wasn’t angry, just a little hurt. She didn’t care who threw it either.

Garrett, one of our constant players, the biggest child in the class as well as one of the kindest and gentlest, came over to see if Bay was going to be all right. He had a look of real concern on his face. He always does when someone gets hurt. He rubbed Bay on the back and looked wide-eyed. He said that maybe we should stop the game for the day and find something else to do.

He said that he was real sorry and that he sure didn’t mean to throw so high and that he didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that he would be more careful next time and that it would be OK to stop the game and he was sure sorry. He started to get a little misty himself. Bay said that she would be fine and that she knew it was an accident. Garrett was relieved. We all were. Garrett gave Bay a big hug. And Bay hugged him right back.

I was so moved. There are lots of lessons we can learn from kids. One is to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake. Another is to forgive when the apology offered is sincere. Maybe a third is to give someone you have hurt a big old bear hug. And finally, to learn to hug back. It’s not all that complex really.

At some point along the way to growing up, we forget what it is like to empathize, to truly put ourselves in another person’s shoes. We don’t fess up when we make a mistake. We lose sight of the fact that at sincere apology often makes things right again. And we forget how important it is to show our true feelings.

It’s like that old David Wilcox song. Sometimes I think we should “Start With the Ending”.

Because when I grow up I want to be like Garrett. I hope that I grow up to be just as sincere and kind and sweet as he is.

For the last few months we have been reading and thinking about Civil Rights and social justice in general. The children just finished, under the direction of our brilliant student teacher Ms. Madona, a little book for literature study called Let’s Dream, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. [Yes, Chris, we’ll probably write a song about him.] We read and appreciated his words for our short language appreciations, and Madona shared from his Letters From a Birmingham Jail. We had some powerful conversations and will have many more.

Yesterday, during writing workshop Garrett asked if he could write a speech. I thought it was a brilliant idea and that many others may want to do the same. [I also considered, Why hadn’t I thought of that invitation?!]

Garrett wrote this in about 10 minutes and came in with it today in final draft form.

A Perfect World Speech

A perfect world would be if there was no bullying.

A perfect world would be if every soul was treated with respect and kindness.

A perfect world would be if there was no violence or killing.

A perfect world would be if there were no assassinations.

A perfect world would be if everybody was nice.

By Garrett


Chris Hass said...

That's a great story. Having it in writing, it feels like one you could revisit with each new group of second graders. I'll definitely share it with my kids.

Hey, I'm only surprised you're just now getting around to writing an MLK song. Even more interesting will be where you go from here? Thurgood Marshall isn't all that melodic of a name, you know.

I've thought it might be fun next year to do a song about the lesser-known "unsung heroes." I saw something on this topic on the Howard Zinn website a few months ago and thought it might be fun to explore. I'll be sure to leave the African-American civil rights activists for you though.

Leah said...

Thank you so much for sharing this on your blog. We have always thought of Garrett as our "special soul" but are always appreciative when others notice his wonderful qualities. You are truly blessed to get to spend your days "at work" with some incredibly wonderful children and they, in return, are truly blessed to get to spend their days with you. I have now read some of your blog entries since speaking with you last night and am even more thankful that God saw to it that through a strange twist of events Garrett ended up at CFI. You, too, are a special soul and a great big, "thank you," goes out to you!

Tom T said...


My wife, Judy was a teacher for several years and she averaged spending about 12 hours a day in school and at home grading papers and preparing for school the next day.

You seem to be as dedicated to the profession as Judy and I hope more and more people will realize how special and important dedicated and proficient teachers are to our communities.

I wish the members of our General Assembly would read your blog so they might appreciate what you do.

Emily Whitecotton said...

What a cool story. David Wilcox is one of my favorites. Thank you for attaching this song to a story like this one. I hadn't put that song in a context like this before, but it so works!

Another one of my favorites is kids taking care of each other. These moments where kids find their way together and show each other who they are with no pretense are the ones that remind me that we really, for serious, do have the best job ever.

I don't know if he had intended this, but reading Garrett's speech, I noticed something. In those last two lines he has the pattern going that allows him to put assassinations and being nice beside one another. They seem like two very different things in terms of complexity, but really if we all were just nice, even when we disagreed, there would be no more assassinations.

People think that we learn simple and easy things in elementary school. What we learn about how to treat people when we are young, if really cultivated as kids get older, could solve so many issues in the world that hurt adults.

Mostly kids are not simple and living in sheltered fantasy, they are just free from the years of disillusionment we've piled on ourselves as adults. Without those screens, kids can see. They see that the solution to assassination and violence is being nice.

Thanks for sharing!

Tim O'Keefe said...

Wow, Emily. I want to use your comment as my next post. Very thoughtful. Thanks.

Jennifer Barnes said...

Awww... Tim! I told you that group of children would change your life even more than you realized. Truly, we are so blessed at our little school for having such amazingly gifted - and fun - teachers and such amazingly gifted, fun, precious children. I am so blessed each day to go to work with all of you.

Loulou La Poule said...

Garrett:2052. He'd have my vote.

Opaline Chook said...

what a sweetheart! Makes me feel good about the world knowing that there are kids out there like that, people who are going to grow into caring adults. I'm a teacher too, and I agree that really getting in there with the kids makes such a big difference in our ability to learn with each other.