It was January, the time when I look forward to being able to do more extensive, focused, and creative lessons with my preschoolers. By January, early fall’s focus on developing independence had really paid off. The children had learned classroom routines and expectations. They knew each other and how to use materials. Roots well stabilized, January is a blooming time in the classroom, a time when it’s easy to understand how early learning got the name “garden of children” or kindergarten. While focused learning was my hope, it wasn’t what I got.
What I got instead was crying. Unexpected and extended crying. Crying that exceeded my repertoire of attempts to comfort. Daja had not cried early in the year. She was verbal, creative, independent, and friendly. But now she cried for her mom. She cried when she came into the room and she cried all morning. Though I listened to and acknowledged her feelings, she cried. Whether I kept her close to me or included friends around us, she cried. Recognizing that something must be different and home, I asked her about TaiTai, her beloved grandma. Writing a note to TaiTai helped only for a few moments, and then again, she cried. She would not be comforted. I conversed with her mom at pickup time, and found out that indeed TaiTai had been busy with a sick friend, but Daja’s crying continued even the next day when it was TaiTai who brought her to school and who reassured her that she would return to pick her up in a few hours.
Always wanting to promote community, I asked children to hold Daja’s hand or to sit close to her. This gave me an opportunity to acknowledge and reinforce the caring and kind behavior of the other girls. Even so, Daja cried. As a community, we talked about things that help us feel better. We tried their suggestions: dancing, reading, playing outside, singing, or playing with a friend. But even while we tried to involve her in those comforting or fun activities, she cried. “Come on, your mom’s coming back!” Her young friend Aaliyah repeated what we all knew, and what had been said many times. And still Daja cried.
Having a patient heart but worn out ears, after three days I was beyond my limit. All along I had been including the children in helping, but now I completely turned it over to them. As Daja entered the room (crying of course), I looked for Maggie. “Maggie, I need your help. You remember what it was like to cry because you wanted to be with your mom. Please help Daja.” At the next outburst, I simply said, “Who’s feeling especially kind right now?” Two other friends, Camelia and Angie, came close. “It looks like Daja needs some help,” I said again later in the day. It occurred to me that this was the same kind of thing I had done in building community when I encouraged children to help each other with puzzles or blocks, or how to write a particular letter shape, but this time it was more authentic. This wasn’t just my desire to get them to help each other and to embrace their own strengths. This time, though I wasn’t particularly proud of it, I really needed their help. This time they were unquestionably an essential part of the community.
And while I often hope to be superhuman, I remain merely human. My responses aren’t always ideal. After three days of listening to crying and being ineffective in comforting, I was no longer patient. “It’s like me,” Daja said about Choco, as I read the part of the story where he cries about not having a mother. “Except you have mother,” I reminded her. In retrospect, there might have been kinder or more literary responses. I could have been thrilled and built on the connection she was making to the story. I could have said, “Yes, he’s crying and let’s see what helps him feel better.”
Later in the day, when she approached me in tears, I knelt down. “Daja, you choose your emotions. You choose whether you want to spend the day crying or spend the day doing the activities you love: art and building and playing with friends.” At first Daja chose to sit on the pillow and cry. When she approached me again, still crying, I reiterated, “This is a place for playing and working and making things. If you just want to cry, you can sit on the pillow.”
These were not my proudest moments in teaching. But now I see that it’s possible that when our hopes and our expectations are unmet, sometimes unexpected benefits arise. I didn’t get the focused teaching and learning I’d wanted. But there was an authentic community at work. And this was not just me piecing out the parts of something I thought they could handle, but a real need.
Even more foundational was the reality of choice. Daja could choose her feelings. On following days she did, proudly pointing out, “I’m not crying.” Real world or not, I could choose the limits and expectations for my own little classroom, a place where when someone feels sad, others come close and hold a hand.