Among the first words a child learns is the word “no.” “No” comes just before the word “mine” and when a child discovers its power, he begins to use that power to separate himself from others. Separation rituals show up on the playground, re-enforced by painted lines, boundaries, zones, and cones. It shows up again in games where kids get divided into teams, some kids getting picked and others, not.
The opposite of separation – unity – also manages to shove its way in as well. Even when the moment feels unsafe, and even when a child feels most alone, kids can find a way to come together. The choice sits there, side by side with all the others. A kindergarten classroom helped me see how it works:
At 10AM last Friday in Room 313, story time began. I sat in the back as Ms. Jacobs took a big book, lifted it up, gave it life, brought voice to the symbols, and poured a waiting world into children’s open hearts and minds. Two five year-olds, Daniel and Daniel, caught my eye, their chins upturned, mouths gaping a bit, eyes wide and ears receiving. I had broken up one of their fights just an hour before. But now, nothing stood between the golden thread of the message and their inner-most beings. It all got in – the words and the story beyond the words – into the core. Could these be the same two who kicked and cursed moments before?
Ms. Jacobs story telling – the way she spoke with such quiet urgency – guided a room full of five year-olds in coming together, sharing the spirit of a tall tale, and forgetting about the things that kept them apart. The type on the pages transmuted into light, color, sound, smell, and a message about the power of hope to defend against fear, the touch of grace that intervenes in the face of cruel slights – the abiding capacity to rise up and carry on even as we have lost most everything. Chaos from the outside became harmony on the inside.
Separation means us and them. Change the ‘and’ to ‘versus’ and you have hierarchy. From hierarchy comes oppression. Oppression leads to conflict. And conflict will lead to destruction. I can’t make in any plainer than that.
If a child looks his options as got-mine-or-not, no wonder when things go south.
Daniel and Daniel had found a balance. Even today when they engaged in mini-might combat – whose ball, who’s first, who is being mean? – the finger-pointing and tears fall away. Union returns. It’s part of the cycle.
After Ms. Jacobs finished her story, she told the boys and girls to go back to the rug and one of the Daniels tripped on his own shoelace, falling flat-out on the linoleum floor. The other Daniel stooped down, took his sometimes arch-enemy by the hand, lifted him up and asked “are you OK?” I was there! I saw it! No trick nor agenda. Just a good boy ready to step forward and help his friend.
Flashing your teeth and growling goes nowhere. Little guys still remember – at least at times – that the way forward is down a gentler path.