Violence for kindergartners and 1st graders isn’t just a kick in the shin or a bonk on the head; sometimes it’s verbal. And when a 5- or 6-year-old uses violent language, a teacher has his or her hands full in trying to explain the difference between right and wrong. Jane Katch, a veteran teacher in Massachusetts, welcomes the challenge, as she makes evident in Under Dead Man’s Skin, an account of how she dealt with the less-than-savory thoughts and actions of her students during one school year. Her philosophy: Allow kids to explore violence, but always follow up with meaningful analysis. That philosophy came in handy after a couple of children recited a dirty ditty that sparked a discussion on what it means to be gay.
“Last week, Aaron told me he learned the F-word,” his mother whispers to me as we watch the children come into the classroom and settle into their morning activities. She has moved aside, so that her back is toward the children, and she nervously avoids my eyes. “I almost hit the roof,” she continues, “but I tried to remember everything I’ve read about how to handle this, so I said, ‘Oh?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s frow up.’ ”
We both laugh, but she continues, anxiously pushing her one loose strand of blond hair back into her tidy ponytail. “Then, this week, he came home with the real thing. I flipped out, and I told him that if he ever said that word again in my house, I’d wash his mouth out with soap.” She smiles ruefully. “I wouldn’t even know how to do it,” she adds.
Even as she laughs, I know she’s serious. In September, Aaron, just 5, was as innocent as they come. He still played house instead of war. He said thank you when I gave him his snack. He always let the new boy join his game. Now, after just a few months in my class, he’s learned to swear and play shoot-'em-up games.
I know that at 5 young boys often move away from their ties to their mothers and start to watch and copy the mannerisms of the bigger boys. Still, I am concerned that the violence and sex in the language of some of the children in the class might affect the younger children in the group.
I try to reassure Aaron’s mother. “He loves to learn about letters and words,” I tell her. “Last week, we listed words beginning with ‘f.’ He must be fascinated by the idea that there’s an ‘f’ word that can’t be spoken.”
I think she is reassured, but I am not. I hate censorship. Yet this year, I find myself constantly censoring what the children say.
Two weeks later, walking by the art table, I hear the dirtiest ditty I have ever heard coming from the mouths of babes. Do they know what the words mean? If I make an issue of it, they will realize they’ve said something important, and it will be more likely to spread in secret. If I say nothing, I’m condoning it.
Aaron comes up to me nervously. “They’re saying something not nice,” he understates. In case I’ve missed it, he repeats the jingle, adding hand motions. Yes, he knows what it means.
Seth looks up from the picture he’s drawing of torpedoes blowing up a battleship. “That’s gross,” he says. “Only someone who was gay would like that.”
Great. Now in addition to violent play and smut, I have to deal with lack of respect for gays and lesbians. I remind myself that all the teachers made a commitment this year to deal with homophobia. I had decided that rather than bring in books on the subject, I would deal with the issue when it came up in class. Now it has, and I can’t think of a thing to say. Clearly, these kids are too sophisticated for simplified answers and will ask some heavy questions if I bring it up for discussion. I am not prepared. I tell myself I need time to think about the problem.
I’m the type who’s embarrassed by dirty jokes. I never discussed sex with friends in high school. I got the little knowledge I had from the library, where I had a job shelving books for 50 cents an hour. As I put the books away, I thumbed through each likely possibility, looking for the information I wanted. I got fired for working too slowly.
I am not eager to tell a bunch of children who are 5 and 6 but who speak like adolescents, whose parents don’t want them discussing sex, why gay men are no more likely to enjoy a dirty rhyme than anyone else. I certainly will not do it when my student teacher, visiting parents, or other adults are in the room.
What am I afraid of? Not that the children will get out of control. I’ve been teaching over 20 years, and I know how to run an orderly discussion. I must be afraid I’ll be asked a question I’m not prepared to answer, one that I find embarrassing. I might feel my neck and face turn red in front of these young children.
Finally, a day arrives when no outsiders are in the room, and I have no more excuses.
“The other day,” I begin at morning meeting, “someone was singing a little song.”
“What song?” Alison asks.
“I don’t even know it, and I don’t want to know what it was.” I look at Alison’s puzzled face and realize that what I have said makes no sense to her.
“It had a lot of bathroom talk in it,” I explain. She nods. Now she understands what I’m getting at. I continue. “A child who was listening to the song said: ‘That’s gross. Only somebody who was gay would like that.’ ”
“What is ‘gay’?” Alison asks.
Nina explains. “One use is when two men love each other.”
“Nina’s right,” I confirm. “When two men love each other and want to live together, they can call themselves ‘gay.’ That doesn’t mean they like gross songs. It just means they love someone who’s the same gender. ‘Gender’ means a man or a woman.”
“Get married?” Seth gets to the next point directly.
“They might want to get married,” I hedge.
“I’m not getting married!” Seth announces. The sex of his proposed spouse is not the important issue here, it seems.
“I saw this movie about gay men,” Nina says. “They all act silly.”
“Some people think that gay men act silly,” I tell her. “In some movies, they make fun of people who are gay, but in real life you might know some people who are gay and not even realize it because they act like everyone else.” I wonder if they’ve noticed that Linda, in the class next door, has two moms.
But Seth brings us back to Nina’s movie. “I saw that movie,” he says. “It was a real-life show.”
“It was probably pretend,” I tell him. “People were acting out a story, just the way we act out the stories you write at writers’ workshop, and sometimes you act silly, too.”
“Why are they making fun of them?” Alison asks.
“Some people make fun of people who are different than they are,” I say.
“Excuse me,” Joel interrupts. “They can’t have children, right?”
“Only moms can have babies,” I agree. “But sometimes men who are gay want to have a family, and they adopt a child.”
“What do you mean ‘adopt’?” Alison continues in her role of demanding clarity.
“I have friends,” I say, “a man and a woman. They wished and wished for a baby, but they didn’t have one. They found out that there was a woman who was going to have a baby, but she knew she would not be able to take good care of her child. My friends adopted that baby, and they take care of it, and they love it just like any other parents.”
“Well, I’m adopted,” Joel says, “and that’s what my mom told me.”
The children look at him in astonishment. They have known him since September and never realized he had an exciting past.
“Did you go to one of those places for babies who don’t have parents?” Nina asks.
“No,” Joel says, looking puzzled.
“Some babies are adopted right after they’re born,” I explain. “But if there’s no home for a baby that needs one, it can go to one of those homes until they find one.”
“Was I adopted?” Seth asks me. I become aware of how serious he has been through this whole discussion, not trying to interrupt with clowning as he sometimes tries to do.
“I don’t know,” I answer him. “You have to ask your mom and dad about that.”
“I’m not adopted,” Alison says. “I have pictures of when I was born.”
Despite their movie-watching sophistication, these children are not really so different from the children I have taught in the past. They have learned to repeat the words they hear from the media, with its explicit language of sex and violence, even when they do not understand what the words mean. When our discussion unravels this confusion, they are able to express the same questions that young children have always asked. They want to know who they really are, and if their parents love them.
I remember imagining that I was adopted, to explain what I saw at the time as the preferential treatment my mother gave to my brother. I pretended that in reality I was of royal blood. Like King Arthur, my true identity would soon be revealed.
These young children learn the F-word too young, while I learned it mortifyingly late. They have too much information, while I did not have enough. But perhaps the solution is the same, and we can learn from each other, growing from the opportunity to talk openly, to ask questions and express our concerns, without fear or embarrassment.
Excerpted from Under Dead Man’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play by Jane Katch. Copyright (c) 2001 by Jane Katch. Reprinted by arrangement with Beacon Press, www.beacon.org.