K Is For Kindness
|In an excerpt from her new book, former kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley reflects on spirituality in schools and the innate goodness of kids.|
In October, I travel to London to address a group of schoolteachers. On the morning of my talk, I visit a nearby nursery school attended by children of many backgrounds, but on this day another sort of child has come. Every Friday, a small group arrives from a school for severely disabled children. None is able to walk or even sit unaided. They are pushed in wheelchairs or carried by teachers.
These 4- and 5-year-olds have come to be with ordinary children. Just to be with them, no miracles expected. A boy named Teddy sits strapped into a wheelchair, his head protected by a thickly padded helmet. This is the second time he has come to Miss Eliot's classroom, and apparently he remembers that after the storybook is read the children are allowed to play.
Teddy stares ahead as if he cannot see. However, the moment the book is closed he turns to the young woman beside him, his head bobbing dangerously. He wants to say something, but it will not be easy. The effort begins in his torso, wrenches through twitching shoulders and flinging arms until at last a single word emerges. "Car?" he asks.
His teacher smiles at him and leaves the room, returning soon pulling a small red car into which Teddy is strapped and cushioned. A complex arrangement of pulleys enables him to inch along by himself, and he pedals to a group of children playing store among a collection of wooden crates and empty food containers. Once again, Teddy contorts his small frame in order to speak. "Crispie," he whispers, extending a hand as if it contains money.
The Indian child at the toy cash register waits patiently for Teddy's request, watching him closely the entire time. How easily the children do this; even the most impulsive child is not uncomfortable with awkward mannerisms in others. Children are deeply curious about odd behaviors and seldom offended or worried by them. What a remarkable gift to bestow upon another person, it occurs to me, and so difficult for adults to accomplish.
The boy pretends to take money from Teddy and in exchange gives him two little cereal boxes, saying, in a clipped accent, "Here you go, sir. Two for the price of one!" It is a simple transaction, such as might be seen any place where children play, but the joy it brings to Teddy's face fills my eyes with tears. What could I ever do to cause him to gaze at me that way?
The sudden conviction that I am witnessing a sacred ritual is unnerving. I want to remain inside this scene, watching Teddy's face, but I am summoned into the teachers' lounge for tea and conversation. By the time I return, Teddy is back in his wheelchair, passive and withdrawn. However, he will be allowed to stay for one more activity, something he has not seen before, and the events of the morning will take on new layers of significance for him-and for me.
Several children have dictated stories to Miss Eliot, which they are about to dramatize with classmates. In the first, two sisters find a bunny and take it home, a basic doll-corner plot, but Teddy is startled. His eyes open wide, and his body begins to tremble. Pleading wordlessly, he reaches a quivering arm toward his teacher.
Edmond approaches them. His story is next. "Your little boy needs his car," he says. "He wants to be in my story." Edmond's story is about a baby bear, a crocodile, and a puppy frightened by a monster. "Your little boy could be the puppy."
The teacher is kind but also tired. "I'm sorry; it's too late," she tells him. "The van is packed for us to leave."
Teddy retreats into his cushions, but by now others are crowded around. "He can't do this without his car, you know," they urge. "He wants to move by himself. We could bring him the car."
A look of astonishment spreads over Teddy's face. Can a boy in a padded helmet really have friends like these who need him in their stories and in their play? Lisa, a Chinese girl, takes Teddy's hand. "Pretend you're the puppy and you didn't learn to walk yet."
Teddy's teacher pushes his wheelchair onto the rug, and the children surround him as the story is acted out. I cannot see his face, but his muted cry follows the monster's growl.
Teddy surfaces again in a Chicago high school English class. I have been asked to explain my use of a tape recorder and daily journal to help me write about life in a classroom. The students are African American and Latino, and I feel very Anglo standing in front of them.
A young man named Paul has been observing me closely throughout my recitation, but when I ask him, "Do you think it's important, in school, to tell and record stories such as the one I've just told about Teddy?" he looks away as if distrusting my question.
I am not discouraged. My question is vague, perhaps unanswerable. "You see, I've been traveling around lately talking to teachers and visiting classrooms. Let's say I describe my work as a writer, as I have today. Some students are involved, but others, their minds are elsewhere. However, if I use a story such as Teddy's as an example of what I enjoy writing about, something else happens. People will smile at each other, maybe tell a story of their own or talk about their feelings. And soon the stories are connecting and lead us along other passages. So I wonder: What's this all about?" My question is directed to the whole class.
There is still no response, but it is not an uncomfortable silence. Then Paul clears his throat and speaks. "See, we're used to so much shit, excuse me, garbage. We're always thinking about bad stuff. This Teddy kid and those others just seem to be, like, well, let's put it this way: While you were telling us those stories, I kept trying to remember if that's how I used to be, so nice and all. I recalled a couple things, and it made me feel, like, well, more relaxed, you could say."
Stanley, directly behind Paul, has been tapping on his desk with a pencil. "That don't change a thing, man," he says. "You get right back to being angry soon enough."
Tovah, her head piled high with beaded braids, raises her hand. "Yeah, sometimes it does, Stanley. Remember that lady gorilla, the one that saved the little boy?" Immediately everyone is nodding and grinning, including Stanley.
We are all familiar with the female gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo that rescued a toddler who toppled into her compound. She cradled and protected him from the other gorillas, then handed him over to a zookeeper. The story was on the front page of the local paper for a week. And now Tovah has only to mention the event to put everyone in a good mood.
"Binta Jua," comes a deep voice from the rear. "That's her name, Tovah."
She swivels around and smiles at the dreadlocked, six-foot student who has remembered the gorilla's name. Then she looks at Jerry Flambeau, the teacher. "Listen to this," she says, an urgent quality in her voice. "I was on a bus going downtown to work. Its summer, and it's hot, and I'm in a mean mood. Mean! I hate those buses, so crowded and people being nasty and all, acting like you're a nobody. I don't ever want to give my seat to anyone and have to stand up and get pushed on. Well, anyway, some white guy yells out, 'Hey, guess what this gorilla did?' And he starts reading from the paper in a really loud voice. It's a big headline and all. A lot of people, like me, we're hearing it for the first time, you know?"
She glances my way, then sweeps the room, as if to make sure she has everyone's attention. "All of a sudden people are smiling and talking to each other, almost like friends. I never once saw that on a bus, early in the morning, everyone going to work-strangers to do that. Then someone asks this guy to read it again, and some other people they start reading it, and everybody is talking about the same thing and looking straight at each other. Here's what I mean. We're so happy ."
I daydream. Does Tovah know that her name in Hebrew means "good"? Perhaps someone in her family is Jewish. To think about this right now is so irrelevant I almost laugh out loud.
Suddenly Tovah is on her feet, twirling about. "Then guess what I did! I got up and gave my seat to an old lady. I just up and did it. Without hardly knowing I was going to."
We stare at Tovah, our eyes growing larger along with hers. She lifts her arms above her head, encompassing us all in her joyful feeling. Stanley gives a resounding series of claps, and one by one the class joins in his contagious rhythms.
Mr. Flambeau walks over to Tovah, and the room becomes quiet. "Why did you decide to do that, Tovah?" he asks gently. "Tell us why you did that."
"Because, see, like everybody is loving that gorilla, and I wanted to do something good, too. I mean, I think that's why. I never even told anyone about it till now."
A shiver of recognition passes through the class; the students look at Mr. Flambeau, waiting for his comments. But he continues to watch Tovah. Then Thomas, in the front row, says, "People do come from gorillas, you know. Like a million years ago? We're sort of in the same family. 'Course most people, they'll pass right by someone getting beat up, even if it's a kid." Thomas looks as if he might wish to elaborate, but the bell rings, and he is first to jump up. A few students stop to say goodbye; I long to convey my feelings, but a simple thank you is all I can manage.
In the now-empty room, Mr. Flambeau pours two mugs of dark, steaming coffee from his thermos and opens a small tin of cookies. "I'd call what just happened to Tovah a spiritual experience," he says quietly. "Two such experiences: one on the bus and again in the classroom."
Sipping the sweetened brew, I weigh his unexpected declaration. "You are a religious man, Jerry," I say finally. "Most public school people don't refer to spiritual experiences."
"I'm the pastor of a church not far from here," he says, "and I guess it does color the way I view things. I've always been saddened by the absence of spirituality in school. No, the potential is here, wherever there are children, but we avoid the subject." He smiles at me. "You avoid it yourself, Vivian, in your books. To me, they're all about spirituality, but you never say so."
The context of our conversation has changed. I am not quite at home with Jerry's image of me. Was the Teddy incident a spiritual event or simply a deeply moving human event? Were all the times I have recognized a "moment of truth"-those glimpses into the nature of human expectations that so astonished me-were they, in fact, religious experiences? Flambeau has a substantially different set of goals, it suddenly appears, and I must keep a measure of distance. Yet his certainty is appealing, even comforting.
"Jerry, I can see there is value in telling one another stories of these spontaneous acts of goodness. Tovah may even have been influenced by the Teddy story."
"We become witnesses," Jerry states. "We see who we are teaching, and we see who we are playing with, we see who we all might be."
I follow him to the sink, watching the soapy water pour over the mugs. "But, for you," I want to know, "what is the spiritual event? Is it the act itself, the story told about the act, the response of the listener?"
"All of the above." As he composes himself to speak, I see the Reverend Flambeau in his robes, a man of God. "At each point someone's suffering is understood by a larger and larger audience. To me, the entire process is proof of the presence of God." He pauses to put the cups away and rinse the thermos. "But I have no objection if God is not mentioned. We can see in these events a victory for goodness, for connectedness to other people. We gain a perspective on the struggle to overcome loneliness."
I have to interrupt. "Yes, loneliness, the major struggle when children enter school. And so the children pass along their stories to each other and somehow the terror subsides."
"Yes, yes!" Jerry sings out. "And now you are passing along the stories, and the stories, in and of themselves, lift our spirits. When we repeat them, it is almost as if we are praying."
He does not notice my sudden intake of air. I am about to say that the Jewish mystics who are part of the religious sect called Hasidim have the same idea, but he looks up at the clock, and I know it is time for the next class to begin.
"My uncle told me about your visit," says an unfamiliar voice on the telephone. "I'm Rosalyn Flambeau. I teach kindergarten." She names a school in a lower income neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
"He's a remarkable man, your uncle," I tell my caller. "I can't stop thinking about my conversation with him."
Rosalyn laughs. "Jerry has that effect on people. The reason I'm calling is to ask if I can visit your classroom. We read one of your books for an inservice workshop and, if it's OK, I'd like to watch the storytelling and acting." She is disappointed to learn I no longer have a classroom.
"But I could come to yours, Rosalyn," I suggest. There is a pause, long enough to make me add, "Or you could come to my house, if you'd rather." But Rosalyn has already decided to invite me.
"Can you be at my school at 7?" she asks. "My kids need some explaining, a few of them do, that is. They're not easy this year."
When I arrive, we sit at a small table in her library corner. The walls of the classroom are covered with artwork, everything made by young hands. So great a sense of fantasy infuses the room, I am startled by Rosalyn's troubled confession. "I'm thinking about quitting," she says. "I haven't told my uncle, but he knows how frustrated I am much of the time."
My sympathy goes out to this intense, young woman. "I've been there," I tell her. "There were times when I wanted to quit. But in the end, I could never imagine myself in another place."
My counterconfession interests her. "Was it the children's behavior? It's the fighting that's gotten to me. It's never been this bad. I'm angry too much of the time, and that doesn't help. There are five boys I cannot reach. Look at our lovely housekeeping area and the blocks. I've had to close those off twice, there was so much fighting and destructiveness going on."
Five who fight is a large number. "Is it real fighting, Rosalyn?"
"Yes, serious stuff. No pretend about it. To me, a fight is more than one hit; it's an exchange of blows. An attempt to hurt someone." Rosalyn's face reflects the pain she describes, but she goes on. "It starts mostly with verbal insults, name-calling, teasing, but if it involves the word 'mother,' it escalates quickly. A mere mention does it, and, being 5-year-olds, they carry this to ridiculous extremes. William came crying to me yesterday. 'He's talking about my mom!' 'What did he say?' 'He saw her in the store!' That was all. And it was worth a fight. There is such an expectation of an insult no one listens to what's actually being said. The need to fight is taken for granted."
Rosalyn is not asking me for advice; she wants to present an accurate picture to someone she suspects is not intimately familiar with her situation. It is true that the fighting I've encountered is on a smaller scale. "In my class," I say, "the fights tended to be about space and materials, though I've had a few fighters of the sort you describe. Your combat does sound more intense and widespread, Rosalyn."
"Much more. I've been in schools like yours. Oh, sure, my kids will fight over a toy, or somebody knocks into something, but everything is taken as an intentional slight, an aggressive act; there's no middle ground." She takes a deep breath, and a faint smile appears. "Don't be misled by my present mood. These are really loving and affectionate children. I love them dearly. The kids in the white school where I began teaching were distant and unresponsive by comparison. I'd much rather be here. But it's the raw emotion that ..."
There is a tapping on the door, and Rosalyn calls out, "Come in, Esther! This is my friend, Esther Bonner, our other kindergarten teacher. I've asked her to join us because she's having a much better year. She'll give you a rosier picture than I can right now."
Esther is older than Rosalyn by at least 20 years. Both women are African American; it is clear they have established a strong friendship. "Rosalyn is having a rough year," Esther says. "I know she's been telling you about it. What she doesn't tell you is what a wonderful teacher she is. I keep wanting her to be sterner, more demanding, but she's not inclined that way, are you, honey?"
Rosalyn gazes warmly at her colleague. "I guess not. I just can't keep reacting in a punitive way, and I have tried. But I want the children to respond to my normal level of-what shall I call it? Polite persuasion? The boys I've mentioned won't listen unless I move toward them in a threatening manner. I have to sustain a level of anger that wears me out. Esther, I don't have my sense of humor anymore, the way you do. We hear your wonderful laugh all across the hall!"
"Well, I do have an easier group. But you have a whole bunch who are really doing well." Esther turns to me. "Rosalyn has some boys who belong in the Book of Job. They need psychological help, but it takes time to do these things and to help the family understand. Kids like this, when they get out of control, all we can do is send them to the office until a family member picks them up, hardly a good solution for a 5-year-old."
Rosalyn frowns. "You're better with those kids, Esther. You just seem to ..."
"Now, I don't know about that. I've got a different style, I guess, a bit more-you know, we've talked so much about these things, wonderful talks. Actually, we're moving closer to each other's style. Rosalyn's gone to Yale, did she tell you? She's got some great ideas."
Rosalyn smiles shyly, but her spirits have risen. "I agree, we're not that far apart," she admits. "We both want to be nice to the children and set good examples of kind and considerate behavior. But Esther is more traditional. She's less likely to choose play over paperwork and table activities. She wants a minimum of distractions, and I'm always going off on a tangent, it seems."
I laugh. "I'm that way myself, you know."
Esther nods vigorously. "Exactly! Rosalyn loves the things you love, Vivian. I say this from reading two of your books. The play and the stories. And, of course, the dramatics. But especially all that talk. I do admire that approach, I really do. I can see it makes for lively minds, and I want to adapt some of it to my program. But frankly, I worry that it will interfere with the structure I am building."
"Esther, tell the truth. You think I'm too wishy-washy," Rosalyn says. "But when these five are out of the room, I can read one book after another, and the children are ready to act them out and talk about them."
"She's terrific at discussions," Esther says proudly, but Rosalyn protests. "Only when someone removes Damone, Albert, and William. Yes, it's really those three. When they're not around, the other two do fine." She stops abruptly and slaps the table. "Okay! No more of this complaining! I've used up my quota for the week. By the way, my uncle said I should get you to tell your Teddy story. Do you mind? We've got time before the children come."
As I rush through the preliminary details, I realize I have two ways of telling the story, a shorter and longer form. It hasn't become ritualized, but I tend to add on the most recent responses. In this case, it is Tovah's lady gorilla and the bus ride. When there is more time, I include more of these reactions, as if the original story is not complete until I have demonstrated its effect on a variety of people. Even now I reach for my tape recorder, having forewarned both teachers I might want to tape parts of our conversation. "It's a longstanding habit," I offer as an excuse, and there are no objections.
I have barely finished the Teddy story before Rosalyn puts her hand on my arm. "Vivian, I have a wonderful example of that sort of thing. Would you like to hear it?" In her excitement, she looks like one of the teenagers in her uncle's class. "It happened last week, and I was so happy for a moment. Then I let myself forget it and sink into gloom again. Well, anyway, we were on our way to the gym. It's a long walk for my children. I always tell them, 'I know it's hard, but we need to be quiet in the hallway.' As usual, the same five ran ahead, yelling. I warned them and threatened them, but they kept on running, smacking into each other, moments away from a fight.
"When we got to the gym, I was boiling mad. I just had to do something mean. So I kept the five boys outside in the hall. I told them, 'Think of one thing you can do next time to keep from running, and I'll let you go in.' Now, these boys need gym, they love gym. I wanted them to open that door and do some appropriate running, but I had to make my point."
Rosalyn shakes her head sorrowfully. "I know, I know. It was a pointless response I was demanding from them, but I simply had to dominate, do you see? Albert, the weakest of the lot, could not handle the pressure. I saw right away this was a mistake. The others quickly made up some sort of answer, but Albert started going into a spin, a dangerous business, shaking his head and moaning. I was scared. I began looking around for help, but the hallway was deserted."
Esther and I are on the edge of our chairs; the suspense almost too great. I want Rosalyn to speak faster and, reading my mind, she does. "Damone is pushing his way into the gym with the others when suddenly he catches a glimpse of Albert, whose groaning and trembling have begun to escalate. In a flash, Damone is at his side, pressing into him, whispering softly. By the way, I can't tell you how often Damone is punched and kicked by Albert, a much larger child."
Rosalyn hunches over, as if she is Damone, murmuring into Albert's ear. "'Hey, man, my brother, watch me, sh-sh-sh, do what I'm showing you. Albert, my man, come on, you can do it, sh-sh-sh, do what I'm showing you, watch me, sh-sh-sh.' Albert keeps jerking around, but Damone won't move an inch. He puts a finger on Albert's lips. 'Hey, man, keep cool, sh-sh-sh, do this, it's a good thing, she'll let you go in, sh-sh-sh-sh. Be my brother, man, do it, do it, do it.'"
I can barely breathe. Then Rosalyn sits up straight, raising her arms as Tovah did, her face beaming. "Albert quiets himself, staring at Damone with every ounce of his concentration. And then, miracle of miracles, he allows Damone to rescue him. He puffs out like a steam engine, 'Sh-sh-sh.'" Damone grabs Albert and hugs him--Albert, the boy who won't be touched. And off they go, into the gym, hand in hand."
Esther and I clasp hands and burst out laughing. We can't seem to take it all in. "Wow!" we finally explode in unison. I hear Rosalyn's uncle: "Yes, a spiritual moment. We are witnesses."
Rosalyn's children seem subdued. They may be intimidated by the presence of a stranger or by the fact that Damone's mother is seated against the wall. She has offered to stay because a day earlier her son had a difficult time and she had to be called.
After hanging up their jackets and backpacks, the children go directly to their places at the large tables. The letter of the day, B, awaits them on individual worksheets, preparation for a group phonics lesson later in the morning.
While the children begin to print rows of B's, Rosalyn and her assistant, Ron Peters, move from child to child, speaking softly to each one. They point to the pictures in the margins-a baby, ball, bear, bunny, and bulldozer-making pleasant conversation with small groups. B-sounds bounce and bubble about the room, creating a gentle syncopation.
The mood is about to change. "Call that a B? That ain't no B!" Ron moves fast, placing a firm hand on William as Rosalyn rings a small bell. "Crayons down, please," she calls out brightly. "Mrs. Paley can't stay long, and she's going to show us something special she does in her kindergarten." The crisis averted, Rosalyn moves us to the rug.
I take a roll of masking tape from my bag and set about making a large rectangle, a foot or so inside the edge of the rug. "This will be our stage," I tell the children as I tear off pieces of tape. "Be careful of the tape, please. We'll need this stage to act our stories." A dozen little hands have already begun to finger the tape.
"First, let me repeat something Miss Flambeau told me about Damone and Albert." The children sit up straight, looking back and forth between the boys and me. "It's such a nice story, I must tell everyone."
All hands have left the tape; every face is turned to mine. "One day, on the way to gym, Albert, Damone, and a few others were running in the hall, making too much noise. Miss Flambeau decided to keep them out of the gym until each boy told her what he would do the next time, instead of running and shouting. Well, three boys figured out a good thing to say right away and went in to the gym. Damone listened to the others and then figured out his good thing to say. He was about to go into the gym when he turned around and saw Albert. Poor Albert was all alone, having a terrible time. He just couldn't think of something to tell Miss Flambeau. Now, guess what Damone did?"
Everyone looks at Damone, who seems to have forgotten what he did. His mother is equally curious and pulls her chair closer. I feel as if I am an actor on a stage before a spellbound audience. "Damone sat right down and gave Albert courage. 'Hey, man,' he said. 'Be my brother. Here's a good thing you can say: sh-sh-sh. Say that: Sh-sh-sh. Tell it to the teacher. Tell her you're going to say sh-sh-sh next time.'
"Well, now, imagine what Albert must have been thinking: Damone is my friend; he wants me to be happy. So Albert went up to Miss Flambeau and put his finger on his lips. 'Sh-sh-sh,' he told her. Then both boys went into the gym, and they had a fine time."
Damone looks uncertainly at his mother, but she smiles at him; only then does he grin at Albert, knowing they have done something to make his mother proud.
My own performance is not over. "You've heard the real story, and now I'll make it into a pretend story about some teddy bears and their teacher, Lady Bear." The children, of course, have no problem following the simple transition to fantasy. They do it themselves continually when they play.
"One day," I begin, "Lady Bear took her class for a walk through the piney woods to Sugar Hill, their favorite place to play. 'Now, remember,' she told the little bears, 'walk quietly past the old oak tree. There are new baby birds in the robin's nest. We mustn't disturb them.'"
Under my direction, half a dozen children form a line of bears with Lady Bear at the front and Billy Bear and Jackie Bear racing ahead. "Pretend run," I caution. "Because if you run off the rug, you're no longer inside the story."
Annette, who is Lady Bear, needs no script from me. She is stern and unforgiving. "Sit here until you tell me a good thing!" she orders. "I'll be good!" squeals Billy Bear, but Jackie, amazingly adept at feigning a tantrum, cries and rolls on the ground until Billy says, "Do the shush thing, sh-sh-sh. Look, teacher, he's doing it!" Whereupon Lady Bear, surrounded by waves of shushing from everyone on the rug, says, "Now you can play on Sugar Hill."
Even before the actors have returned to their places, Annette's hand is waving an inch from my face. "I got one, OK? Can I do a story now?"
Rosalyn and I exchange glances, and she answers for me. "Mrs. Paley has time for one story. Then she has to leave. We'll do more stories later. Mrs. Paley, can you write down Annette's story now, since she's ready? When you're done, we'll come back and act it out.
"Meanwhile," her voice fades to a whisper, "let's be quiet little teddy bears who color their B-for-bear pictures." Rosalyn enters the spirit of the event without missing a beat.
Nor does it take Annette more than a moment to begin her story. "There was a mother," she dictates, while we are still standing. "Mine's not a bear, OK?" We find paper and pencil and sit down at the library table. "She losted her baby. She looked every place. What are you looking for, your baby? Here's your baby. I've been playing with your baby 'cause that's my sister."
When her classmates return to the rug, Annette announces that she will be the big sister, LaTonya offers to be the mother, but nearly everyone else wants to be the baby. "Well, then," I decide, "whoever wishes to be Baby may curl up on the rug, and Big Sister will find you." The scenes are played with great seriousness, a peaceable kingdom lost and found.
Damone is first to jump up. "Why are you leaving?" he asks me. "I might have a story."
"Miss Flambeau and Mr. Peters will do your stories," I tell Damone and the others. "But I must visit my mother now. She's expecting me. I'll tell her all about my visit to your class."
|If this feels like a spiritual moment, why not call it that?|
The children, their upturned faces in every shade of brown, wait for further explanation. "I'll tell her about the B's, and I'll tell her about Damone being a friend to Albert and about Lady Bear and her class. Then, when we're having our lunch, I'll tell Annette's story of the big sister, the mother, and the lost baby."
Rosalyn hands me my coat, and we hug goodbye. After so many stories, we are friends. Driving to my mother's, I see with renewed clarity the power of this activity I have pursued for so many years, the dramatization of children's stories. Annette's story is accepted as a gift by her classmates, an opportunity for them to share her vision of sisterly love. But, beyond that, to give someone a role to play-a lost baby, the suffering mother, the virtuous sibling-is akin to offering new life to a wandering soul. If this feels like a spiritual moment, why not call it that?
Vol. 10, Issue 8, Pages 51-57