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What a Five-year-old Reminded Me About Purpose

The most important lesson from Kindergarten is the one I forgot.

   A friend once said of teaching, “It’s their world, I just rent a condo in the summers.” Anyone who has spent time with young children would agree—he couldn’t be more right.

   We all need ways to pull ourselves out of ourselves, and also out of a world that can feel out of control. It’s particularly important during a time of ever-present political upheaval and international uncertainty, not to mention the very adult-ness of our daily work lives—frenzied almost by definition. Perhaps the best antidote? Go back to Kindergarten.

   With another school year in full swing and children running around like supercharged puppies in the crisp Fall air, I find myself reflecting on life with kids. After twelve years teaching Kindergarten and first grade myself, I left the profession last year. Recently, I stepped into a classroom for the first time since leaving my own. A friend works for an organization that brings authors into schools. I met her there one afternoon, curious to check out the program.

    One of the things that first drew me to become a Kindergarten teacher is that young kids force you to be in the moment. Their needs are pure, concrete and immediate. You can't be wrapped up in your head when you're with young kids. Otherwise, they might put a crayon up their nose or lick a filthy subway pole during a field trip. (It happened, twice.)

   I'm a freelancer now—writing and editing—back in my pre-teacher career of sorts. It's great, but some days gets lonely. Leading up to that day with the kids, I'd had a week's worth of frustration building about a couple of projects that weren't working out. Alone time is the perfect breeding ground on which to dwell—a useless pastime. Visiting the school came at a good time.


   It was a small public school on a quiet, tree-lined block in Brooklyn. When I arrived, the children were excitedly flipping through their own copies of the author's book. They sat in groups at tables neatly organized in the middle of the room. Sunlight poured in through a wall of tall windows and seemed to electrify the room. The chatter was immediately familiar—like hearing a song after a long time and still knowing the lyrics and cadence.

   After the author got there, the kids gathered in the meeting area. He introduced himself, his voice calm and direct. Then he patiently shared his picture book with the wiggly five-year-olds. Their excitement was infectious. Each time he stopped to ask a question, one gleeful answer triggered a flurry of—Me too's! My friend and I laughed as this oh-so-typical spectacle played out.

  

When the author finished, they went back to their tables to draw or write personal connections to the book. Teaching children to become literate is a powerful experience. I marveled—as I always have—as I watched them label their pictures and read them to each other.

   Afterward, it was time for snack. A boy named Dante pulled a role of unopened crackers from his backpack. I was standing nearby when he returned to the table. He pulled at the brown plastic packaging with his tiny brown fingers for a couple of minutes. He saw me watching, stopped pulling, and held up the crackers for me to open them.

   I had heard Dante’s name a lot in the past hour. He was the exceptionally active kid who stood instead of sat at his table and talked loudly to the other kids. I had always felt a connection to kids like Dante. His enthusiasm mirrored my own as a child.

   I hesitated when Dante held up his crackers, then shook my head. He was frustrated. I knew, after teacher training and years on my own, to give him an opportunity to solve his own problem. But it’s a balancing act. At what point does peak frustration set in and problem-solving become futile?

   Seeing his scrunched-up face made me question whether I should just take the roll of crackers and open them.

   Instead, I knelt down to his level. “What tool can you use?”

   He looked at me blankly. I rephrased.

   “What do you have in the room that cuts things?”

   He tentatively pointed to a basket of tiny scissors on a shelf.

   “Try it,” I said.

   He picked up a pair and went back to the table. I watched him grapple with his hand and the scissors; before long, he found the proper angle to hold them. He cut a triangle of plastic off the end of the role, just big enough to squeeze out a cracker. He looked up at me again before starting to eat and smiled. Each cracker was a single bite.

   Soon after, my friend, the author, and I said goodbye and left. It was time for recess. As we exited the building, I felt a curious spring in my step.

   The rest of the afternoon was less-than-productive. Back-to-back conference calls, during which everyone talked over each other—essentially a waste of time. Then I spent time whittling into oblivion two articles I’d been working on and called it a day.

   What we know and how we feel are different. I knew that afternoon in the classroom what I had been taught to teach Dante. What I forgot was more personal and so simple—something my experience with him reminded me.

   As I thought about Dante, I laughed to myself. The triumph he felt in the moment he opened his crackers—the way his eyes sparkled—had in a way become my own. I’m not a parent, don’t plan to be, and I rarely miss the classroom. It’s also rare, I remembered that afternoon, to feel as useful in this life as when we adults help children become more useful to themselves.


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