A few weeks ago I had a moment’s reprieve between meetings in the education building. It turns out that my nephew spends his afternoons in the children’s school on the first floor. There, he and his colleagues find many amenities including a playground (fenced so that the undergraduates can’t get in to play on the equipment), snacks, rest mats, reading nooks, many blocks, and friends. The place also has a special room from which the parent, student, or just random creepy professor can sit in and watch the goings on within the classroom ecology. It’s a nice place to spend some time, especially since the people in there explicitly need to be quiet, and we all just get to sit in the dark and watch 4-year-olds.
When I got there, that spacious terrarium of a classroom contained children doing a wide array of doings. It was their free play time, but each activity they could engage in had purpose. To keep track of the children in their natural habitat, you could identify them by the name tag they wore, not on their front but pinned to their back. In big, bold letters with a color coded label, each kid could be recognized by the undergraduate observers spending time in the same room as me. They meticulously took notes on behaviors of both the kids and, I suppose, the teachers working with them.
I quickly found Peter, red tag on his back, as he was playing with a girl with some blocks and having some kind of exchange about what they were doing. Then, he ran around the room in a kind of dance that culminated with a return to his friend. At that point, he apparently had to describe his orbit through some combination of jumping, interpretive movement, and enthusiastic storytelling. I was happy to see that he seemed to be comfortable with himself at school.*
As I sat there, I realized there was so much more to admire about this setting, and it brought me back to my own experiences in this class when my daughter was in school there. There was the sand/water/sensory table that Peter had told me about very enthusiastically just a few days before. Today they were squirting colors of one thing into other things, carefully observing the input and the output, dumping out the result, and starting over, and over, and over. There was the giant ball of kool aid colored/flavored dough that was rolled around into globs and shapes that the children could barely maneuver. There was the girl who picked up a baby doll, draped a bag over her shoulder, and climbed up to the top of a fort as though she were on an excursion. And, to see any of this, I had to turn my gaze to reach past the girl who was staring straight towards me, but focused into the space in which she saw her reflection in the one-way mirror. She made faces and jumped up and down to see what her twin would do in turn.
But the part that struck me the most was the child who came up to the teacher with the big roll of cream parchment paper. “You want me to trace you?” the teacher asked, and the child answered by lying down on the blank slate. With a marker, the teacher created the outline of the child. When finished, the person from whom this cast was made took her image to the table and then got to do the most remarkable thing: She got to create what she looks like on the inside, displayed for all to see. Her insides were vibrant, colorful and intricate. There was never an attempt or even glimmer of a thought to be literal about the insides. There were rainbows and stars rather than a spleen and liver. When you’re four there must be more to your insides than some collection of organs.
It would be easy to make too much of this, but it struck me. When was the last time someone invited you to display what you think you are from the inside, in full size and full color? And when was the last time that you got to create such an image for yourself? Other than small issues like being the creepy grown man who asked the pre-school teacher to trace him, as well as the fact that I would have had to stand in line behind my nephew’s classmates, I think it would have been cathartic to have the chance to draw my insides, spending some time seated at the short table and upon the miniature chair, and then roll up myself, tuck it under my arm, and take it to my own wall where I could post myself, from the inside, for full display.
*Although I imagine he’s still even more comfortable with himself at home. His dad tells me about the time he had to remind his son not to play with his penis. Peter had been doing this in rhythm to the song that he was singing to himself in the living room. His dad explained — as if this would be convincing — that it would be embarrassing if he were to start playing with his penis during a soccer game. Peter seemed completely confused by the possibility: “But I never need to play guitar when I’m at soccer.”