School Days and Preschool Days, Too:
A treasury of anecdotes culled from my work and play as a preschool worker and an elementary school after- school activities supervisor

                        painting by Diane Cobb, reprinted with permission
2003 portrait of the author at work with
a child, by artist/art teacher, Diane Cobb.


      I wrote the vignettes on the following pages while working at a California private school for preschool through fifth grade children. Currently, I'm a full-time preschool teacher. For three years beginning in January, 2001, though, I spent weekday afternoons as an after-school activities supervisor for elementary schoolers. I've also substitute-taught in all grades.
        At times I'm scarcely able to wait till I can write down the hilarious or otherwise amazing words I hear and the sights I see. I wouldn't be able to imagine scenes so touching or funny.

        Of course, working with young children is demanding. Most of our teachers are exhausted by day's end. The work calls into play our most adult qualities, and our most childlike.
        A preschool teacher learns early on that two to five year-olds do not share a grown-up's perception of time or the world. This situation can make for humor, as well as confusion. A little girl, for example, once told me her parents were going away.      
      "Oh?" I replied, as much in as a musical call-and-response as anything. "How long are they going for?"
      "Forty days!" she exclaimed with wide, distressed eyes. Her mother's eyes got a little wide, too, when I shared what her daughter had told me.
      "We're going to Sonoma for the weekend," she said. "Betsy's going to sleep at her grandma's one." That wasn't how it felt to Betsy.

     Another little girl announced excitedly one day, "I'm not going to be at this school any more, after today!" When she showed up the next day, and the day after that, I asked her dad when they were moving.
      "Oh, we're not moving," he said. "We're going to Hawaii, but not for another week. And we'll be back a week after that."
     As far as geography goes, many little ones know a place called Disneyland. Beyond that, understanding is often very sketchy. When a child comes back from a long trip and the teacher asks, "Where did you go?" the boy or girl is likely to say, "On an airplane", end of story. A similar mix-up occurs when a child gets injured. The question "where did you hurt yourself?" almost always brings an answer like "over by the sliding board". Nowadays I always phrase my exploratory question, "What part of your body did you hurt?"

     Because the consciousness of a small child is so much in its own world, calling on people who spontaneously raise their hands at Circle--even though "a quiet hand" is just what we ask for, if someone wants to speak--can bring unexpected results. One boy's comment, no matter what the ongoing class topic was, always focused on cars. Another boy would begin with a statement tangentially connected to the classroom discussion. Using the phrase "and then", would segue in breathtaking leaps to a narration of his entire life history, all told with vague pronoun references in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness. The teacher would smile and nod, listening long enough to validate the boy, and. then politely move on to the next song.

     Socialization is one of the main themes, and probably the major subtext, of our little preschool community. Research shows that most children have to be around four before they begin to recognize reciprocity and the rights of others. We have many two and three year-olds in our play yard, so that seeing someone grab a toy from someone else--maybe even bop the other child on the head with it--and justify the act later with "But I wanted it!" is not an uncommon experience.      Desire is in fact the most frequent justification of lots of things. "You need to put that toy away now, it's lunch time" brings the reply "But I want it!". If the child was a lawyer, he'd follow that statement with "I rest my case" and feel confident about the verdict. Moving out of the narcissism of early childhood is a long and difficult process.

     I knew a three-year-old recently who volunteered to get a wet kleenex for someone who'd gotten sand in an eye. Afterwards, the boy explained his action without my asking: "I've had sand in my eye before, Mr. Max, so I knew how Albert was feeling." Such maturity is as heart-warming as it is unusual.
      Another boy demonstrated a rare quality when I gave him a "time out" for hitting someone. Time outs are very short at our school, and after thirty seconds or a minute I nodded at him and said, "OK, Randy." Some twenty minutes after that, it was time to go inside. Randy, still sitting next to the wall of the building, said, "Mr. Max, may I get up from my time out now?" He hadn't realized my "OK" meant "it's OK to get up and play", and had sat there for twenty minutes out of simple loyalty, believing himself to be still atoning for his little infraction. I apologized profusely for not having been more clear.

     Discipline for all our children is based on the work of Howard Glasser, author of "Transforming the Difficult Child", a book whose principles really apply to everyone. We try to give children ample praise and to use brief time-outs, administered without anger, when they are necessary.
      The teacher's eternal dilemma, of course, is what to do when you came upon a situation just after it happened. Sometimes a young bystander will believably recount what she saw. Asking the participants usually brings complications. "What did you do to Ellen?" usually brings a passionate narration of "what Ellen did to me!" One of my friends told me once, "Even King Solomon wouldn't be able to sort out all this.!" We try our best, though, to be fair and kind.

     After awhile I felt I'd met my Waterloo in the after school program with the elementary school boys and girls. My efforts to encourage boys to "lighten up" about their competitiveness in sports met grim resistance. My suggestions of funny team names like the "San Francisco Sweatsocks" brought the kind of silence one might expect from flatulence at the Queen's tea party, followed by renewed calls of  "We're the Giants!" "No, we're the Giants!" "OK, we're the A's!"

     Since I began writing these stories down, our play yard has changed considerably, a consequence of the ever-rising insurance cost and ever more prevalent threat of lawsuits that schools face. The low, metal bars I describe catching children jumping off are gone now, as is the platform from which one boy used to proclaim, "I'm so high!" Children are no longer allowed to climb the practically banzai juniper tree, though fortunately they may still swing from a branch. Nor am I allowed any longer to hold people's hands for leverage as they swing easy backward somersaults. Someone's shoulder got dislocated elsewhere in the school in a different activity. But we can't be too careful. They can do somersaults with their dads, I tell them, and their parents may bring them to the yard on weekends if they want to climb the tree.

     All that just means we have to use our imaginations more. Fortunately, imagination is nearly boundless, and is close at hand for children. Something magical nearly always still happens when I enter their lilliputian world.

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