Ok, here I am, the one who STARTED the kinderchat summer blog challenge (info here), and yet somehow, I am the last one to actually POST my first answer. I will tell you, however, that I have been mentally composing this since before I came up with the question. As I am washing dishes, showering, driving across town, folding laundry, I am pondering, remembering, reminiscing… It has been good, making all those little trips down memory lane. I know that, by many scales, I am still early in my career, and yet there are still, tucked away into the corners of my brain and heart, so many children, so many stories…
Before I tell the story I am going to tell, I suppose it would be nice to share the question. As per the kinderchat blog, this week’s question was:
Tell us the story of the first group of children for whom you were “Teacher.” Maybe it was at a school, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a childcare centre, or a daycamp, or a swimming pool or a dance studio or a hockey rink. Maybe it was in your own home, or their home. Who were they? Who were you? What did it FEEL like? Maybe it was amazing. Maybe it was terrible. Either way, there is a story there. Tell it.
So, Internet, here it is: The Kids Who Made Me Teacher
When I finished my education degree, I proceeded, quickly and urgently, to NOT hunt for a teaching job. The reasons for this were both logistical — a summer position in California, followed by a month of travel around the state, capped off by a dear friend’s wedding. (If Crecky and Baig had not said their vows on a beautiful late September day in the Wine Country, this whole story might be very different) — and emotional. The last few months of my degree were draining, and aside from one very inspiring professor, had left me sour on the whole idea of school board bureaucracy. Now, nearly 15 years after the fact, I will admit, too: the entire prospect of Applying To Work For a Big School Board, and then Being Responsible For Delivering the Program of Studies terrified me. What’s more, a few summers working at sleepaway camp had shown me that there were all kinds of ways to build relationships with kids OUTSIDE of a classroom, and Relationships With Kids had always been my priority.
So, I returned from California in early October, and started the hunt for A Job With Kids. Within a week, the local YMCA had snatched me and my over-qualifications right up, and I was a YMCA Child Development Worker. This meant I spent all day every day in a room with 12 toddlers. That’s right. Me, another staff member, and ONE. DOZEN. TWO-YEAR-OLDS.
I was immediately exhausted. The childcare field being what it is (underpaid and therefore generally understaffed, with crazy high staff turnover), those kids had been through 8 teachers in 6 months. There was no routine. There was no consistency. There were no systems. There was no schedule. There was me, another adult (more on her in a second), and twelve little people with limited verbal skills, limited social skills, limited… everything. And they were ALL in diapers. My memory of the first few weeks in that room looks like a cartoon: me, sitting on a tiny chair in the middle of the floor, while the kids chased each other in circles around me, shrieking. In my mental image of that scene, there are clouds of dust rising around small, pounding feet, and the children’s race around the room leads them up and over any furniture or obstacle in their path. Including, at times, me. Now, in retrospect, my rational brain knows: the children were not, IN FACT, running over the tops of all the furniture… were they?
I knew nothing. The teacher preparation program I had attended had many wonderful qualities, but it sure didn’t teach me very much about CHILDREN. Who knew that it was developmentally normal for 2 year-olds to bite each other? Who knew that they could have diaper blowouts that rival a newborn’s? That their method of choice to get what they want is to disable the competition? That stressed out working parents will scream at you about a lost sippy cup? That potty-training could burn through 8 complete outfits in one day for the child, and nearly as many for me? That 12 of them can cry at the same time for 12 different, but equally mysterious reasons? That the sound of 12 simultaneously crying toddlers will make most adults cry, too? WHO KNEW? On more than one occasion, I excused myself to the adult bathroom, rested my head against the toilet paper dispenser, listening to the blessed quiet, feeling tears leak down my face. I was so tired.
And then, my co-teacher was fired (for turning her back on the entire group while I was changing diapers, resulting in scary incident involving a small child and adult-sized scissors), and along came Noelle. Noelle was as young as I was, and our combined knowledge about managing groups of 2 year-olds should have barely filled a teacup. And yet, somehow, together, we figured it out. Routines replaced chaos. Rituals replaced anarchy. Because we knew nothing, we were open to anything. We tried things: outdoor play first thing in the morning? Nope, too cold. Singing songs while we wait for lunch to arrive? Yes, brilliant. Walking to the park? Nope. Watching the swimming pool? Yes. We sat on the floor and played with those kids, showing them WHAT TO DO with all those buckets of toys. We helped them wrestle in and out of dress-up clothes. We read hundreds of stories. We sang thousands of songs.
As the room settled down, we got braver. We started baking with the kids (blue cupcakes, anyone?). We filled the water table with leaves, then with snow, then with feathers. We didn’t know this was called a sensory tub. We thought we invented it. We made rules, more for ourselves than for the children: When a child asks for a story, we must read to them. If you smell the dirty diaper, you change it. The person who deals with lunch dishes doesn’t have to disinfect nap mats. Noelle kept the toys clean, and I did the laundry.
And the children. Oh my sweet Baby Jesus, how we loved those children. Somehow, without ever saying it, Noelle and I shared a clear understanding: our first and most important obligation to those children was to love them. With those children, I learned to love caregiving — the giving of care to teeny tiny people. As faces were washed and diapers were changed and sippy cups filled and washed and re-filled, I discovered the power in those tiny moments of interaction. At nap time, Noelle and I worked our way around the room. Starting in opposite corners, we would each sit between 2 small cots, and hold a third child on our laps. Did you know you can rock a child to sleep while sitting on the floor? As Garth Brooks crooned soft love songs through the CD player, we each rocked one kiddo while rubbing two other little backs in slow circles. (The side effect of this routine was the best abs I have ever had in my life.)
Those children changed me. I had spent the end of my degree program frustrated that my belief in the power of loving children was dismissed, by professors and peers alike, as being “not enough” to make a teacher. Those children taught me that, when love is understood, not as a feeling or as an object, but as an action, it is not only enough. It is everything.
It’s a little and a lot to ask
An endless and a welcome task
Love isn’t something that we have
It’s something that we do.