Adventures with Tiny Kids

In the summer, I usually teach a few community education classes. These are awesome. You can make up whatever it is you want to teach, and kids will sign up to take it. I’ve done a few over the years. Hands on Science, a.k.a. mentos and diet coke! Creative Writing a.k.a. I feel guilty your parents are paying me to sit here and watch you write on your own. Introductory French a.k.a. what can I remember from a class I took over a decade ago.

My favorite has been cooking, and that’s what I did this year. In the past I offered one class for grades 3-6. This year, the program director encouraged me to expand the ages. So I had a morning class for K-3, and an afternoon class for 4-8. The older grade scared me more. I know kindergartners. I’m around them, we share a space, and occasionally I interact with them. Middle schoolers are a whole different animal. I thought the little ones would be easy, the older ones more challenging.

Good god, was I wrong.

Little kids have no logic. I’m sure this is obvious to some of you, at least on some level, but I doubt many people realize this truth I’ve come to be painfully aware of: humans under 7 are feral creatures who thrive on chaos. Yes, they are adorable, and sweet, and fun. But I challenge anyone reading this to attempt to make a pie dough with someone who has not yet attended public school, and come out with your sanity intact.

Here are a few highlights from the week:

Bathroom Adventures

Little kids who have to pee will grab at and compulsively knead their crotches. They will make direct eye contact with you while they do this. When you ask if they have to go to the bathroom, they will say ” No…?!” In a way that is somehow a question and a firm denial. Then they will ask to go at the least convenient time ever. They also don’t like to go alone. This will entail either leaving a group of 5-7 year olds alone in a room to accompany one down the hall, or making a whole group field trip together to stand outside the bathroom whispering louder than most people yell while other classes look at you with clear concern and mild fear.

I’m going to eat this, but not that.

This was a cooking class. We cooked food, and we ate it. On one end of the spectrum, we have the boy who was grossed out by everything. The smell of potatoes, the feel of flour dough, the sound of apples being chopped, and anything, ANYTHING, to do with corn. He would loudly announce “Eeeeeew!” all the time. I tried to get him to switch to a different word- maybe he could say ‘bologna!’ instead. “No, I want you to know when I’m grossed out” was his response.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had the human garbage disposal- who also happened to be not only the smallest person in the class, but the smallest person I have ever worked with in my capacity as an educator. He had turned five last week. He was adorable, eager to please, and probably would have eaten the other students had they not been constantly in motion. I learned fast to say “Do NOT eat this!” when I put something down on his plate. On the very first day, when we started cutting up tomatoes for sauce (with plastic butter knives) he ate half a tomato in a bite before I could stop him.

That’s not to say he didn’t keep eating things. In 5 days he ate portions of an apple core, apple seeds, raw dough, and several tablespoons of butter. When we had leftovers after making pizza, he ate the cheese with a sense of single minded purpose that was frightening. At recess, he sat on top of the slide eating fistfuls of pepperoni and laughing to himself.

He also ate literally everything we cooked, which included portion sizes most adults would be daunted by.

Following Directions

I teach kids. I know they don’t generally follow directions. Third and fourth graders get distracted, they decide they know better, they’re too concerned with their friends to care about directions. I’m used to that.

But little ones? That’s a whole different story.

I had conversations like this multiple times a day.

Little girl: “Where does this go?” Holding up empty bowl and spoon.

Me: “In the sink, sweetie.”

Girl: Stares at me in silence.

Me: “Put it in the sink, please.”

Girl: “Where does the spoon go?”

Me: “It all goes in the sink.”

Girl: “Where does the bowl go?”

Me: “Everything in your hands goes in the sink. The bowl and spoon go in the sink.”

Girl: Stares at me, frozen and silent.

Me: “Sweetie, put the bowl and spoon in the sink.”

Girl: “Ok…” Walks away

7 seconds later

Girl: “Where does this go?” holds up spoon and bowl

Me: Moment of silence to figure out if this is a joke… “Where do you think it goes?”

Girl: “Um, the twash?”

Me: Silent, staring. “In the sink, sweetie. The SINK!”

Then she put it UNDER a table?! Why? Fourth graders would do that and then say “Ha! I put it under the table. Hilarious!” They would not actually go through a thought process and decide yes, this is where this should go.

Physical Contact

I’m used to kids giving me high fives, poking me when they need something, occasionally asking for a hug. Little ones are different. This week was about 85-90 degrees every day. It was also humid. When we went outside, everyone was dripping wet in about 3 minutes. When offered indoor recess, however, no one wanted to stay in and play games, preferring instead to go outside and risk 2nd degree burns on the metal playground equipment. I stayed on a nearby bench, watching to make sure everyone was safe.

Without fail, one of the kids would come sit with me. I would smile and chat with them, and meanwhile they would get closer and closer to me, while I scooted away until I was on the edge of the bench. Then the tiny one would either get next to me so their body was completely against mine, or climb onto my lap. The sweatiest snuggles ever.

Meanwhile, the middle schoolers were predictable. Every sentence had 14 ‘likes’ and 23 ‘ohmygods’ and there was eye rolling, but in the end, they followed directions, did what they needed to do, thanked me, and only threw handfuls of flour into each other’s faces while shrieking 7 times.

Early childhood and primary educators, you have my deepest respect.

Get Me Out of Here! I Don’t Want to Leave.

Ah, the last day of school. Mixed emotions all around.

School ended for us last week. This year was particularly hard for me. After 2 years together, my class was moving on. Since our school loops, I’d had them for all of third and fourth grade. It’s hard to say goodbye after that long.

Added to that, the first class I ever had as a full time teacher was graduating to middle school. The tiny little ones I had at age 8 had grown up to be tall, smelly, pimply, moody preteens. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Saying goodbye to them, even though I knew they were more than ready for junior high, was also hard. In one way or another, I’d been dreading this day for years.

The kids all react differently to the end of a loop. Some kids become extremely clingy, and want hugs and high fives and to stand as close to you as physically possible without actually merging into a single person. Others suddenly doubt everything, and ask questions like “Where are the pencils?” to which you must patiently answer “The same place they’ve been for two years.”

Some start pushing away before they can be pushed. Loudly declaring how they won’t miss the classroom, then wistfully sighing and whispering goodbyes to the fish. There are more tears, more fights, more frustration, than ever before.

At the end of the loop, they are more like siblings- prone to snap at each other, argue over pointless things, and push each other’s buttons. But like siblings, they see each other as family, and are sad and afraid to face a new class without each other. (The fact that they will see 1/3 of their friends in next year’s class, and the ones not in their class will be only yards away, and they’ll still see all the time, is not something they can comprehend right now.)

Mixed feelings sums it up. A few days before the last day, when I mentioned the impending final day, two boys spoke at once. One said “Ugh, get me out of here! Is it summer yet?” The other said sadly “I don’t want to leave.”

Then, they both spoke at once again, saying the opposite! The first said “But I’ll miss everybody so much! It’ll be so sad!” While the second said “Obviously, though, I can’t wait for vacation!”

Mixed feelings.

I saw it with the sixth graders, too. For the first time in over a year, they were visiting me in the morning. In the final couple weeks, there would sometimes be 8 older kids at once in my classroom, looking around as if to memorize the details. They asked me if I remembered things from when they were in our class- funny stories, outrageous comments, surprises. They asked me about middle school. When I reminded them I hadn’t gone to school here, they asked me what it was like for me. I found myself remembering my own fear and happiness from ‘moving up.’ Class choice, independence, no more lines! But also, the fear of what was coming next, and wondering if your friendships would hold. Before they left, they almost always doubled back for a hug. Even the boys, who a month before gave me no more than a chin nod in greeting.

Our school does a lot of symbolic things around graduation. Since we’re K-6, most kids have spent the majority of their lives in this building, with these people. Some can’t remember a time before our school.

We end with a handshake. The 6th graders circle up outside, and one by one every grade comes through and shakes the hand of each graduating student. It’s incredibly sweet and touching. The younger kids love it, and it gives the older ones a sense of closure.

When I first started, it had taken me only a couple weeks to realize how much I loved my first class. Since then, I had been afraid of the moment I’d have to hug them goodbye at the handshake circle. I’d been afraid I’d cry too much, be too emotional.

I did ok! I did cry, but I smiled and laughed, too. I told them they were ready.

As I hugged one girl goodbye, one who visits often and cried hardest at the talk of leaving, I whispered to her “You’ve grown up so much!” “So have you!” She said back.

That made me realize another reason why that class meant so much to me.

I had been an assistant at the school I now work in for two years prior to getting my own class. That job had made me realize I wanted to be a teacher, and I had gone to grad school and done my student teaching in the same place. When I graduated with my masters, a position suddenly opened, and I got my dream job- staying right where I had been for two years prior.

I was hired in July, started in late August. In early October, just as I was getting my feet, my boyfriend of 3 years broke up with me. We’d been living together, talking about marriage. Suddenly I had my cat and my few worldly goods in my car, driving to my parents house. I was reeling. I lost so much- love, my home, my friends. It felt like I didn’t know who I was.

But I knew I was a teacher. I had those kids. And I could come in every day and forget how sad and lost and heartbroken I was. I spent 12 or more hours at school frequently in those days- there was always things to do! When everything shifted under me, I knew I was a teacher. I knew they loved me, and I loved them. At my lowest points, they were the brightest parts of my life.

Things got better, and they were there when they did. When I marvel at how the little ones who could barely write a paragraph or resolve a conflict have become such mature, sophisticated people and advanced learners, I see my own growth, too. I was a young, confused, sad- there’s no other word for it- kid. I end this year the proud owner of a house with a big yard, a well behaved dog and an unruly puppy. My wedding is in a month, and my fiance is literally the man of my dreams. I still fall down while playing capture the flag, can fake burp like nobody’s business, and laugh at bathroom humor- but I’ve got things together now in a way I didn’t at 24.

We’ve all come so far.

I’m going to miss my 6th graders, but I know they’ll come back to visit- just like the first class I ever worked with, as an assistant. They’re going into tenth now, and they like to stop by and grin at the shock on my face as I stare at them and realize who they are.

I’ll miss my 4th graders, too, but I’ll see them often. With every emotional goodbye, I realize two things: That things are never final, and we’ll see each other a lot; and that it never gets any easier to say goodbye.