Some days I feel like a renegade, or maybe like a naive foreigner trundling along. Or maybe on the inside I feel like a renegade, but on the outside I look like a bumbling foreigner. I'm talking about Planet Playground again.
When I first agreed to be recess parent at Xi's school I somehow imagined a form of detachment. I thought I'd be the caboose at the end of the line, smiling benevolently and joining in songs. I didn't imagine even talking much. But then on my very first day they gave me my very own group of ten kids to chaperon to the park. They handed me a clipboard and said: Ladies and gentlemen! All eyes on Ms. Natalie!
This wasn't detachment! This wasn't invisibility!
The one and a half blocks to the park is simultaneously the longest and shortest walk of all time. Somehow in that distance every imaginable human experience takes place. There is sorrow, excitement, jubilation, anger, curiosity and I am at the head of this jumble of life, definitely NOT uninvolved, very very involved. There are coats to be zipped and cold hands, and apparently exceedingly enticing piles of gravel that little feet like to find in lieu of the sidewalk. There are scraped palms and queries. There are confessions of what happens at home and constant cute chatter.
The renegade part is that when conflict happens I don't count to three or put anyone in time-out. The foreigner part is how they look at me when I don't do what they have grown accustomed to grown-ups doing.
Just yesterday a little girl didn't want to put her mittens on, in fact refused to even go find her mittens. I ushered her gently and oh so sweetly. I'll help you honey. She was turned inward, resentful, and sullen. We found the mittens and she made it clear she didn't want to wear them. She was dug in, ready to battle with me. I said: You really don't want to wear them huh? It's pretty cold out and I think you'll wish you had, but what if we put them in your pocket and you can test the weather yourself? She liked this idea. Then I added: But the thing is, in line you'll be holding hands and we probably won't stop for you to put them on, so you'll test the weather all the way to the park, and then be able to put them on. Okay? She agreed and then something passed her face and she was sullen again. I offered empathy. You're not feeling good about things? You wanted this to go differently huh.
The look she gave me was so funny. She was so ready to fight me and here I was sort of agreeing with her. She simply did not know what to do with this reaction. The contrary wind left her sails and I think she was a little sad to see it go. But I also saw relief. She slipped back into line kind of stunned but not holding anything from the mitten fiasco, ready for the next part of the day.
At the park two boys were calling Teeeaacher! Teeeaaacher! and it took me a moment to realize they were talking to me. Then one said: Teacher he pushed me. And I'm not sure what the customary school teacher response is to this sort of thing but I said: Oh darn! You didn't like that huh? Were you afraid you were going to fall off the edge? And then the other boy cut in and said: I said sorry! And I said: Right. You weren't trying to scare him. You don't want him to feel afraid do you. And these boys cocked their heads like what the heck is this lady saying????
But they liked it. They didn't want to stop playing together. They didn't want one to be dragged over to the time out bench. They were absolutely loving their game and played it the whole lunch hour. They just wanted acknowledgement of their struggle. They wanted that safe feeling of a grown up being aware of them and their concerns. They got that.
So at first I told myself I'd be an invisible support person. Then I told myself I was just a parent-worker, not a real teacher so I could secretly carry on in my unorthodox empathetic ways. Then the other day a fight broke out and it happened that it was just me and the head of the school at the park. She was on the cell phone and waved me over to deal with the conflict. I hurried over, squatted down, and started my thing. But apparently it was a quick phone call because the director was almost immediately behind me. My arm pits started sweating. I felt like suddenly there was a pop quiz and I hadn't studied a lick. I hadn't really paid attention to how the teachers handled this sort of thing.
I had one of those instantaneous mental conversations with myself. I thought, Well, I'm going to carry on in my style regardless. She wanted me to deal with this and so I will. I let the hitter know that I could see that she was very angry, but that hitting was not an okay way to deal with it. She immediately started playing something else so I turned and offered empathy to the other girl. I asked for information, not so much about what happened but more about what she wanted to happen next. I asked the hitter to pause her game and check in. I tossed in more empathy. It was quiet and subtle and it worked. But I was still sweaty in the armpits.
As it turns out the director loved it. I think in her eyes I shifted from an ordinary extra person to have on hand, to an extraordinary person to have on hand. And that of course feels good. Like anyone I enjoy a bit of external approval, but I suppose that's not really the take home message for me. In fact I'm not sure what message I'm taking away from these exchanges. I just know I like kids and I like being with them in a way that feels real and helpful to us all. I love honesty and I love assuming the best of others.
And what a wonderful universe we live in. Hidden among all of the mundane tasks of our lives, like yard duty, are endless opportunities to work on the profound tasks of our lives.