It was probably one of the most rewarding and exhausting work experiences of my life, running a kindergarten class. It was my first practicum, and I was fresh-faced, desperate for a good recommendation from my teacher and principal–and thus a rabid boot-licker, and just high-energy enough on a regular basis to power space travel. It fell to me to basically keep a room full of children from falling victim to their own selves: from attacking one another or unwittingly ingesting food they were allergic to. Making them regularly get to the bathroom so they didn’t soil themselves. If I wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on them, it was entirely possible that one or more of them would have drowned in the sand box. I was a human petri dish, my pockets were filled to the brim with mucus-encrusted tissues from the kids, and it was my duty to teach them colours and numbers and how to read. And to make sure they didn’t die.
Kids at that age are essentially unlit bundles of kindling, fires waiting to burst into flame: as a teacher you’re just supposed to kind of nudge them towards the flint. Most of schooling at this age is about discovery, about learning how to learn, about reconfiguring their young, spongy brains to accept and manipulate and generate information, and how to spit that information right back out at you in interesting ways, through words or movement or finger paint.
They are also unlit bundles of kindling in a more literal sense, in that they are fragile and delicate and that it is probably unsafe to leave them anywhere near kerosene. Sharp objects must be kept out of sight and reach and possibly out of the universe. Containers where they might shove their heads must be locked away. Anything that they might jam into their curious little maws and choke to death upon, which is to say everything, must be carefully handled and stowed and ferreted. They have a very low sense of self-preservation, young children, and you have to fill in the gaps with yours.
Their emotions run hot and furious and fast, though thankfully they are imminently predictable. Children at this age are ultimately without guile, without a carefully developed ability to mask their feelings and their intentions. I remember watching one boy as another child stole a book from him, the flare of anger behind his eyes, the way that his face seemed to turn transparent so I could see the ticking clockwork of his little brain. I could see that he wanted revenge, and wanted it as soon as he figured out the best way to dole it out, and that I could step in and confuse him enough to cut off the violence at the pass.
Joy and sadness too can pass quickly, can be roused and doused, or turn impossible to quench. Children will spend entire days manic and bursting with energy, and others desolate and inconsolable. They have no filter, no stop-gap methods, no ways to handle and depressurize from intense emotions. When they are swept away by them, they are taken far out to sea.
At the same time, sometimes they can be brought back from a precipice with the right word, with the right expression of caring. I remember Penny, sitting on the kindergarten stairs, forlornly staring into the distance while the other children assembled in the morning circle. She seemed far away, tears pouring down her cheeks, her fingers lacing and unlacing. She might have been a pint-sized 17th century maiden staring out from a widow’s walk, waiting for her whaler husband, who would never retrn.
“What’s wrong, Penny?”
Penny shook her head, words seemingly even too heavy for her in this dark time. I wondered if we had a fainting couch. I tried to cajole her, to find the root cause of her state, to seize upon her youthful sense of justice if another child had wronged her, to woo her back with the promise of first pick of centres. Eventually, I broke out the trump card.
“Penny, do you think a hug would make you feel better?”
Penny gave very serious consideration to this offer, and after weighing the costs and benefits, agreed that indeed, it would. I wrapped an arm around Penny, and she threw hers around my shoulders for a second. She only needed a moment. “All good?” I inquired. She sniffed, suddenly stalwart, ready to face the cruel world once again. “All good.”
As a male teacher, my professors warned me to be careful, to be a hawk about my physicality, to know that everything I said or did would carry implications I might never mean. People might publically cherish me for being a male role model working with young children, and then in private basically assume I was a predator waiting for just the right chance to molest at will. Being in a room full of tiny, crotch-height hooligans whose mental states can only be improved by an embrace, who would throw themselves upon me without warning, made me incredibly nervous. I developed a hug sense: I knew when one of the little hug torpedoes would come running for me, and would swivel so they’d catch a hip, rather than the front side of me. I convinced most of the students that the high five was actually the more mature, adult metric by which to show affection. A hug showed that someone cared. A high five meant they cared, but they were also proud.
Of course, since they still have precious little control over their bodily functions and still worse motor skills, I had to get over my squeamishness and my worries if I had any hope of operating successfully in a room full of small children. I remember Lee wandering over to me one day after stopping in the bathroom, and telling me in a frustrated whisper, “I can’t do up my pants.”
This was my third day in kindergarten. I felt fairly certain an educational SWAT team was waiting nearby, ready to cuff me and toss me into the deepest, dankest chasm of teacher prison. There had to be cameras nearby. This was a sting operation. At least one of the children was surely a sleeper agent.
I tried to mime to Lee the best way to zipper himself, showing him how he might use a pincer grip to clutch past the metal teeth. He shook his head after a few moments, and looked into my eyes with exasperation. Dude, he seemed to say, are you going to help me? Or is my fly going to be open all day?
With a heavy sigh, one that assumed that my career would certainly be over, I zipped him up. I felt shaky and anxious, but the world moved on. And the world moved on again several minutes later when he returned to the bathroom, and then needed another zip-up.
More than anything, though, children at this age grow and change so quickly. I remember Charlie, a Chinese-Canadian student who spoke only Mandarin at home, in his first days in our class. He was in the silent phase many language learners experience when immersed in a whole slew of crazy new phonemes, and I thought of him as a tiny, aloof little knight. He was dutiful and respectful and never uttered a word. I spent days with him practicing words and the alphabet and helping him grow used to the pencil grip so he could write his name dozens of times. C. H. A. Okay, a little break. Then R. For a month, I barely ever heard his voice, but for the occasional yes or no, or the joyed appreciation that we were having pineapple for snack that day.
I remember coming back to visit, two months later, and Charlie being the first one to greet me. The kids were outside in the Kindergarten pen, a closed-off area seemingly designed to cordon off dangerous velociraptors, which I guess was very near appropriate. Charlie spotted me before the rest of the kids, bounded off the slide, and ran to face me.
“Mr. M!” Charlie squealed. “You’re here to see us again?”
I had never expected so many words to emerge from Charlie, so fast, so clear. I didn’t expect them to be directed at me. I squatted down and gave Charlie a high five. Then I gave him another, to make sure he knew that I was proud of him.
The little ones can bring that out in you.