We’re in New York City right now, here to celebrate our daughter’s graduation from college. The city has become a sort of second home for my wife and me these past few years as we’ve regularly visited our girl, and I expect that won’t change as her plans are to continue living here for the time being pursuing her career in the theater.
Yesterday morning I met my parents, who are also here for the ceremonies, at Vessel, a recently completed landmark building/work of art constructed as the centerpiece of the Hudson Yard redevelopment. It’s a new, shiny thing, a feat of human creativity and industriousness, and whatever you think of its artistic merits, there is no doubt that it stands, like the rest of this city, as a bold statement about things we human beings can do.
After taking our photos, we walked back into the city, dodging our way through the barriers and caution cones that are there to protect we pitiful pedestrians from the massive amount of construction taking place in this area as it revitalizes. It reminded me of my own neighborhood back home in Seattle with its skyline of tower cranes and maze of closed sidewalks. Later on, we walked under some of the ubiquitous scaffolding of NYC, evidence that this or that building was receiving its facelift; roadways were being dug up as crews worked on underground infrastructure; planters were being weeded and watered; sidewalks pressure washed and swept; every block, it seemed, presented at least one temporary obstacle made necessary by the need for something to be repaired or maintained or created anew.
It’s easy to become frustrated, to be brought down a bit by the noise, dust, and ugliness, but, of course, it’s a necessary part of any vital city: everything human must be maintained. And that doesn’t just go for cities. Farms and villages, cars and bicycles, gardens and parks, art and science, indeed anything created by humans carries with it the obligation of maintenance, even including, perhaps especially including, such human things as our relationships, our mental and physical health, and love. Without our constant attention, all of the things we hold most dear begin to erode, to come apart, to fray around the edges, just as the brand new Vessel has already begun to do.
In fact, life is about waking each morning, maintaining, repairing, and improving things, only to arise the following morning to find we have to do it again. It is relentless, which is why we need to find ways to step outside of it, if even for a moment. Meditation, alcohol, video games, reading, or simply spending time in nature (where maintenance is not required), it seems to me, are examples of ways we try to temporarily remove ourselves from the never-ending obligations of maintenance. It occurs to me that this is also one of the blessings of spending our days in the world of young children, humans who have not yet been taught the lessons of maintenance.
It gets to all of us at times, even overwhelms us, but there is none but temporary escape if we are to fully engage this world as humans. A city that is not maintained is one that is dying: an unmaintained life is likewise one that leads to despair no matter how much we wish it otherwise. And so we rise each morning, wrestle life back into shape, then rise the following morning to do it again. It’s true for each of us. Whether to embrace or fight it is up to us.
To those who weren’t part of the process, it probably looked like nothing much: a bunch of boxes, some children’s drawings, a few stuffed animals. If it wasn’t for the chairs set up in rows and the slightly raised bit of flooring that reads as a stage, few would have known that they were in a theater.
This stage was set for our play, one our four and five-year-olds have been working on for the better part of five months, starting in January, “writing” it one line at a time. For weeks, I would set myself up at a corner table with a clipboard and pen, taking dictation from whatever children stopped by. Sometimes they worked alone, sometimes in groups, layering their ideas one upon the other, brainstorming, creating plot lines and characters, trying to make one another laugh. Occasionally, they would ask me to read the entire script to them, usually declaring it “too short,” before adding more.
My father-in-law was an English professor and once told me that he preferred Victorian novels over contemporary ones, complaining, “Traditional novels have satisfying plots; modern novels just seem to be one damned thing after another.” This script was definitely of the modern variety, as knights and mermaids and ballerinas and ninjas joined with cats and snow plows and ice skaters and birds to race about, fight, discover, play, defeat bad guys, clear roadways, build robots, adventure, and make friends, while offering the audience three separate all-cast dance parties.
While the first draft took place around a table, the real “writing” happened as we rehearsed, and boy did we rehearse. This is the 18th time I’ve helped children create a play for their end-of-year celebration and I’ve never had a group so eager to practice, often demanding it when I had other plans, like playing in the sunshine. During the rehearsals, kids would call out to me, “Take that part out!” They would decide to change their character in the middle of a scene. Better ideas replaced the old ideas in the blink of an eye, and my job, as director, was simply to keep up, recording their wishes as accurately as possible.
As we got closer to the end of the school year, and the final form of our show began to come clear, we began to work on our sets and props. So often, when parents come to see their preschoolers perform, this is where the adult hand is most evident, but just as we managed to leave the script and rehearsals to the children, this too was fully a product of their collective creativity. I would say, “We have lots of bad guys in this play, but none of you want to be bad guys. What should we do?” And they responded, “We should draw them with markers.” When I said, “Right now, we’re just pretending there is a castle. Do we need a real one?” They responded, “Let’s build one out of boxes.” And this is how we created, each detail, no matter how small, the product of our collective, creative, dialog.
Word-by-word, character-by-character, set piece-by-set piece, prop-by-prop, and damned thing-by-damned thing, our play came together, and on Tuesday we performed it. It was a delightful, chaotic, mess of a performance, the kind of thing that could have only come from the minds of these children; it was a piece of art that we presented on a stage for an audience at a given time on a given day, but that has already existed for months and will continue to exist far beyond the brief moment when we allowed the wider world a peek of who we have become, together. The final line of this play said it all, “And they all got to be friends.”
It happened in a flash. He wanted to dump the bowl of "jewels" (florist marbles) that he had collected into the mud. She wanted them to remain clean. He dump the jewels. There were loud voices and when I looked from across the sand pit I saw her push his face, then storm off.
Both children were upset. The boy's mother was nearby and after checking to make sure he wasn't hurt, engaged him in a discussion, so I followed the girl whose body was tense with rage. She marched this way and that for a moment, jaws locked in anger. As I approached, she turned her back on me, so I stopped in my tracks.
What was I going to say to her? Maybe I was going to remind her of the rules we had all agreed to some weeks ago, specifically mentioning the one that goes, "No pushing." I might have been preparing to say something like, "When you pushed his face, you hurt him." She walked slowly away from me, her shoulders hunched forward. When she got to a corner formed by a railing and a random cart that has found its way onto our playground, she knelt on her knees, nose in the corner.
I looked back at the boy who was now chatting easily with his mom as he bent down to the mud handling the jewels he had dumped there.
I didn't say anything to the girl because, frankly, there was nothing to say. Or rather, anything I said would be redundant at best. There was no question that she was already feeling remorse, regretting her action, mulling it over in the quiet of the corner she had found for herself. I stepped away and left her to her conscience. After a couple minutes, she moved herself into a more distant corner, although this time she faced outward, her face a study of sorrow, staring into the ground.
Again, I began contemplating words I might say to her. Maybe I could comment on her emotional state. Or perhaps there was something I could say to help her understand the cause and effect of the affair. But again I realized that anything I said just then would be a mere distraction from the important work she was doing, sitting alone, calming down, and painfully reflecting.
Moments later the boy approached her, hand outstretched. In it was a jewel. He offered it to her saying, "I cleaned this one for you."
She took the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand. The boy shifted from foot to foot as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, I softly said, "That was a kind thing to do." He went away then, back to his play. The girl watched him go then looked back at the jewel in her hand, contemplating it for a moment before clutching in her fist. She stayed that way, thinking and feeling, until she was ready to return to her own play. It's from these moments that we become wiser, gentler people.
I could not have been more than six-years-old when my friend Jeff and I "borrowed" a book of matches from his mother, took them to an undeveloped lot in our suburban neighborhood, a place we called "the woods," and practiced first lighting the matches, then setting small fires. We did this over the course of several days, going through many books of matches. We never discussed it with one another, but we obviously knew that it was somehow wrong, hence the hiding amidst the trees and underbrush. These were tiny fires, ones we would only let burn for a minute or two before putting them out. One day, as was inevitable, however, our fire got out of control. Some stray pine needles carried the blaze to larger clumps of tinder and before we knew it we were desperately stamping. It took everything we had to finally catch up with the fire we had started.
I'm inclined to say it was a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but looking back now from the perch of a half-century later, I recognize it simply as a six-year-old thing to do. "Stupid and dangerous" is an adult framing. If you had asked my younger self, I'd have said, "We were playing," which is to say, asking and answering our own questions. Jeff's mother was a smoker and he had learned to strike matches by watching her, a skill he passed on to me. He showed me how to tear one of those cardboard matches from the case, then flick the sulfured tip across the striking surface. When I'd struggled, I figured out how to fold the matchbook cover backwards, allowing me to pinch the match head against the striking surface. Then all it took was a quick jerk and I had a flame. I already knew how to blow a flame out, having done so on candles, but we also found that a quick wave would also do the trick, as would depriving it of air by stepping on it, or, as Jeff had seen his mother do, bravely pinching it out with our bare fingers. We had practiced these things and more for weeks before heading off into the woods to set our fires.
And we definitely learned something about the dangers of fire that day, something far more profound than adult warnings. Indeed, for years, that lesson almost incapacitated me as I recalled the flames spreading beyond our control; the surge of sweaty panic that filled me, the vision of every house in the neighborhood being burned to the ground. It was to the point that one could almost say I had developed a phobia, one that given the experience, could be considered a healthy one. I never "played" with matches again. Even today, more than a half-century removed from that moment, I can still summon up a flash of that terrifying day: I still run spent matches under water for far longer than necessary, I make double, triple, and quadruply sure that my campfires are out, and I can't relax at dinner when my companion uses the table candle light to read the menu.
It's tempting to say we were "lucky" that we didn't burn the neighborhood down, but that wouldn't be entirely true. We had slowly built our skills up over days and weeks, learning how matches worked, how we could control them. When we went to the woods, we were clearly seeking to take our knowledge to the next level and it was our previously developed skills that allowed us to prevent disaster. That day in the woods still stands out as one of the most traumatic of my early life: indeed, I remember it precisely because of the trauma and it is why I can today "document" my learning.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that we turn our preschoolers loose with books of matches, but I do think this story illustrates the sometimes dangerous, even hazardous balance, that we all must find in our quest for knowledge. The children we are raising today will spend virtually their entire existence under the supervision of adults, with little chance of getting their hands on a book of matches, let alone access to the privacy within which to play with them, and that is probably a good thing, but what else won't they get try as we keep them under our forever watchful eyes? It's something worth thinking about.
We have a lot of keys, hundreds of them, collected over many years, both in batches and one at a time. What do we do with all those keys?
"I'm putting red keys in my bowl."
"I'm trying to find black keys."
"Hey, this one has a face."
"I know, let's take turns!"
"Yeah, I'm first!"
"No, I'll be first, you be second, and you be third, and you be fourth, okay?"
"Okay, your turn."
They proceeded to go around the table, each child selecting one key at a time, some doing so with quick assurance, with others taking their time, hunting for just the perfect one as their friends waited patiently, anticipating their next turn or studying their own collections. As the game went round and round the table, others joined them. Some watched for a while, making a study of the game, before saying, "I want a turn." Others started with the question, "What are you playing?" or the statement, "I want to play."
Room was made, more bowls were found, the key game continued round and round. Every now and then, controversy arose.
Some of the keys are connected by key rings, forming bundles of keys. Did they count as one key or too many to take on a single turn? If someone walks away, do their keys stay in their bowl or get returned to the common pile?
"Hey, you took a golden key! I'm collecting goldens."
"It's not your turn."
"I don't have enough keys."
But more often, as the game progressed, the children began to work cooperatively rather than competitively. If a child had made their collecting strategy clear (reds, blacks, goldens, etc.), their friends made suggestions, saying things like, "I see a big key!" or "This is a beautiful one!" Sometimes they would even offer one from their own collection if they felt it would better fit in that of a friend's. Indeed, the game finally evolved into a trading game with children sharing keys with one another, making the case for why their friend needed this one or that one. Then two girls formed a team, combining their collections into a single bowl. More teams formed, until finally they were all one team, going around the table, each still taking a turn, adding a key to the community bowl until it was overflowing.
What do we do with all those keys? It's different every time.
The kids were balancing along planks that had been set up as bridges between two points. Most of them were managing it just fine, but a few lost their balance and had to jump to the floor. After several minutes of this, one of the kids announced, “If you don’t want to fall, I know how.” He spread his arms out to either side, then began to walk carefully across a plank. “If you hold your arms like this, you won’t fall.”
He had discovered a fact of physics that we all learn in childhood, usually through the trial and error of play. Some day, he may be formally “taught” the concept in a classroom, perhaps including a formula and certainly with some scientific jargon, but since he has this head start, since he already “knows” how it works in real life, it will come much more easily for him.
This is one reason why play in early childhood, and lots of it, is so important. Too often, traditional schools start with the abstractions of algorithm or sentence structure or phonics. Without the sort of underlying understanding that comes from having actually experienced what these things describe in the real world, most children struggle far more than they need to, taking years sometimes to learn things that they could have “learned” in a day or two. No wonder they come to think of school has hard: it tries to teach them things backwards.
If we want our children to grow into well-educated adults, and by that I mean people who actually understand beyond the kind of rote memorization required by traditional schools, they must play, and play a lot. Now, I’m of the mind that this is how we should be learning throughout our lives, but there can be no doubt that when it comes to the early years, play must form the foundation.
Within minutes, arms spread wide, the children followed their friend across the planks, knowing, deeply and with their full bodies, what it means to balance.
Not long ago, I wrote about releasing the butterflies we raised from caterpillars. What I didn't mention was that we also had front row seats to lady bug larva pupating and praying mantises hatching from their egg cases. As with all things we do around the school, some of the kids were only mildly interested, while others were super excited. And then, there was one boy who was out of his mind with anticipation and joy.
He already had a passion for small critters of all sorts, including insects, spiders, garden molluscs, worms, and anything else one might find on leaves or under rocks, an interest that grew in the place that had previously been occupied by dinosaurs. But our classroom insects seem to have accelerated and amplified things.
Our class begins its day on the playground, but he could do nothing before rushing into the classroom to check on the bugs in their habitats. He took it upon himself to give daily (if not more frequent) reports during circle time on the insects' progress, including his theories about what we could expect in the coming days. He noticed when the pray mantis finally began to hatch within seconds of the emergence of the first one. He wanted to try various kinds of "food" to see what they preferred. His parents read to him at home and he enthusiastically added his new information to our classroom discussions, sometimes refuting the literature that had come with the eggs and larvae.
Every teacher has taught students like this, ones given to a single-minded intellectual curiosity, kids who are driven to "go deep" into whatever it is that has captured their imaginations. It can last for weeks, months, or even years, sometimes to the point that parents express concern, using words like "obsessed," worried that their child's focus is too narrow, that they are missing out on everything else. But it's a misplaced concern. There is no right or wrong way to satisfy curiosity: some of us tend to be generalists, while others are more inclined to specialize. The important thing is not what trivia we memorize, but rather to, through out self-selected interests, have the opportunity to fully develop our own unique way of knowing, to learn how we learn. Some go broad, some go deep, and most of us do a little of both.
For the last couple of weeks, this boy's enthusiasm has spread to his classmates. Whereas we were once only casually interested in "bugs," there is now at any given moment a bug safari taking place on our playground, with our resident expert playing the part. They'll call out to him, "I found a slug!" and he rushes to the scene. They gather around, forming a voluntary audience for his impromptu lectures, asking questions, starting their own bug collections in imitation of him. His passion has gone viral.
We started as a community with one bug expert, but we are rapidly becoming a community of bug experts, not because it's what some adults determined we should be able to regurgitate onto a test in order to continue along an education assembly line, but rather because it's what we have decided, together, to become, a community that shares passions, learns together, and grows together.
When parents complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just might not like the choice they made after listening to you.
Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.
We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the remark we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.
We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."
We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."
We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was when he said to a classmate, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"
And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."
They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.
Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn everything else by listening and watching. Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not ours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want them to be. That's the real work of teaching.
Back in early April, I was clowning around with the children, making some obviously untrue declarations in the interest of silliness when one of them, suddenly full of righteous fury, turned on me, "You're lying!" I replied that I didn't think I was lying, but she insisted, "You said something that isn't true. That's lying." When I appealed to the other children, they sided with her.
I asked, singling out my accuser, "Okay, so I heard you say you were Pikachu the other day. Were you lying?"
She thought on this for a moment before answering, "I was pretending to be Pikachu. It was just a game."
"But I wasn't trying to trick you. I was just joking."
She didn't consider my point for even a second, dismissing me casually, "You were lying." The rest of the kids nodded their agreement. Later that day, we all agreed to not lie, something we formally added to our class's list of agreements, more commonly referred to as "rules."
This dialog has continued as a series of interesting debates and dialogs for over a month now. Mostly, the kids have been calling me out, but they've also accused on another. They seem to agree that pretending does not fall under the dark cloud of lying, although one can, apparently, lie within a game of pretend. For instance, not long ago there was a flare up over one boy insisting that an old pan lid was his steering wheel. His accusers said he was lying because they had previously designated that particular object as their stew pan. When I suggested that maybe he didn't know it was already a stew pan, a suggestion that he adopted as his own defense, some of the kids asserted that it didn't matter, while others felt that it couldn't be a lie if he didn't know, one girl insisting, "He didn't lie, he was just wrong." After more debate, a general consensus arose that being wrong wasn't the same as lying.
During a subsequent, calmer discussion, I said that I felt like it was only a lie if someone was trying to trick someone else, like if someone gave me a bag of candy to share, but instead I told everyone I didn't have any candy and ate it myself. Some of them, on the spot, accused me of lying, certain that I actually did have a bag of candy to share, but others had their own stories. "One time my sister told me she didn't take my stuffy, but I found it in her room." Another said, "My friend said I was a Martian and I'm not."
They have made progress over the month, slowly coming closer and closer to a consensus on what constitutes a lie, as opposed to pretending or joking. I've avoided lecturing on the subject, although, as in the above example, I've tried to contribute my own thinking on the matter when it seemed appropriate.
Yesterday, I was walking down the hallway with the girl who had originally accused me of lying. She explained, "Lying is like when you break something at your house and then tell your mom and dad that you didn't break it."
I answered, "Couldn't you just pretend you didn't break it."
My wife, Jennifer, was lately marveling at how joyfully our dog, Stella, rolls in whatever grassy lawn she comes across. All of the dogs we have ever adopted have done this, and we've long speculated that it's because they have found something particularly "stinky" and want to take the perfume of it home in their fur, with off course "stinky" being translated into dog language as "heavenly."
Females choose the most appealing males "according to their standard of beauty" and, as a result, males evolve toward that standard despite the costs. Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival.
We don't have a lawn at our school, but when we take children to one of the nearby public lawns, they behave in many ways like Stella. They tend to fall into the grass, rolling in it, digging in it, grabbing at it by the handful, and, naturally, picking any little wildflowers they find, collecting them into bouquets they deem "beautiful." Now one could argue that since flowers are often harbingers of food in the form of fruit, that humans have evolved to be attracted to flowers for utilitarian purposes, and that collecting them to carry home might even be a way to communicating the location of said fruit to the rest of the tribe, but scientists are increasingly coming around to Darwin's long neglected notion that animals sometimes, if not frequently, develop traits, like magnificent plumage or resonate voices or the tendency to roll in stinky stuff, simply based upon the fact that they have, as a species, determined those things, like those wildflowers, to be beautiful.
According to the theory of sexual selection, the expression of one aesthetic over another is largely arbitrary. A female that favors a mate due to a certain look/scent/sound/dance over another might not do so for any discernible reason other than that she digs it, which tends to lead to offspring that feature, or favor, that particular trait, meaning it gets passed on even if it doesn't have anything to do with "survival." It is the creation of beauty, apparently for beauty's sake.
I used to jokingly divide the books in my home library into two general categories: truth (non-fiction) and beauty (fiction), and while I meant it whimsically, we do tend to behave as if there is some sort of natural tension between the two. Literacy and math, for instance, a pair of more utilitarian aspects of education have been elevated in our public school curricula while the arts have been dramatically reduced, or even in some cases cut entirely, being deemed unnecessary, even frivolous. But this is a false comparison: truth and beauty are in equal measure manifestations of life's purpose, which is to seek to understand itself.
Truth is how we try to understand the external world, while beauty is how we try understand our internal one. Expressions of beauty, be they the feathers of a peacock, the splay of a sunflower blossom, or the layers of an oil painting, are how living things express the part of reality, of ourselves, created from within. As soon as we are capable, we begin to create beauty. I'll always remember how our newborn daughter played with a kind of gurgling sound in the back of her throat for weeks, sounding something like, "Agggggguuu." She did it over and over in her contented moments, making that sound both because she could, but also, it seemed to me, because she liked it, creating beauty for its own sake.
Beauty is not frivolous, even if it is also arbitrary. Indeed, it appears to be one of forces that define living things: its pursuit a companion to our quest for truth. It is not mere ornamentation, but rather something fundamental to life itself and any education that places truth over beauty is one that neglects half of what makes us human. Be it gathering flowers into bouquets, expressing ourselves through dance, or passing it along in our genes, it's only by engaging beauty that we will ever understand the world within ourselves.