In 1966, I’d been teaching dance and movement for adults and teens at a local YMCA, but needed a summer job. I was hired to teach a Head Start class of 15 children ages four to six although I’d never taught young children before. They came from a housing project close to the school where the program was being held. I was given a room that housed a kindergarten during the school year, but was told the only equipment I could use were the blocks. I protested that the children needed to paint and was reluctantly given permission to use the easels as well as a bit of program money to buy paints and clay.
On the first day of class, after setting up the easels and paint, fifteen boys and girls, accompanied by an aide, ran into my classroom laughing, crying, pushing, shoving, screaming, although a few hung back looking frightened. I had no idea how children were assigned to teachers, if my kids were more given to acting out than others; what I did know was that the turmoil had to stop. Immediately.
All thoughts of having the children paint or sculpt disappeared. I had to use my most authoritative voice to get the children to sit. When they were mostly quiet, I told them, “I have no capacity for chaos” They looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language, and I suppose in a way, I was. I explained we needed to be kind and considerate and caring and respectful. More bewildered looks. This wasn’t their language nor was it surprising. They lived with constant noise—radios and televisions blaring, people yelling, fighting, hitting . . . I couldn’t expect them to understand what I meant immediately so I decided to start with an activity that wasn’t messy or required sharing easels. I showed them where the blocks were and invited them to play with them.
Oy! As soon as a child built a tower someone knocked it down. Hitting. Crying. Throwing blocks. Some took a few blocks and hid them behind a screen hiding a sink. Some took blocks and hit children who tried to snatch a block from them. This had to stop. Immediately.
I called them together and asked them to bring all the blocks to the middle of the room and then to sit down around the blocks. This took so long it was time for snacks. As they were sitting, drinking juice, I said, “We’re going to have a meeting where everyone can say what they think and feel.” Silence. I was still talking a language they didn’t understand. I began. “Who likes to build with blocks?” Every hand went up. “Who likes to have someone knock down what they’ve built?” No hands went up. “Well,” I said, “we have a problem. You like to build, but you don’t like someone to knock down what you’ve built. What are we going to do about this?”
They stared at me. Puzzled. Bewildered. Eventually, one child said, “You the teacher. You tell us what to do.”
“Yes, I’m the teacher, but I’m not the one building with blocks, and I’m not the one knocking them down. You are. So, you have to figure out a solution. What should we do so that everyone can build what they want without worrying someone is going to knock it down?”
For the first time there was complete silence. Once again some ventured to suggest I tell them what to do. Once again I explained why the solution had to come from them. The silence was uncomfortable. Maybe I was asking too much of them too soon. At least they were sitting quietly, not hitting or squirming or yelling. It looked as if they were thinking about what to do. Maybe this was as good as it could be for the moment. I was trying to think what to do next when a pigtailed girl ventured to speak. “Maybe we should ask If it’s okay to knock someone’s blocks down?”
I grinned. Jubilant. “Right! What you’re saying is you want people to ask permission to knock something down.” She looked bewildered. Permission wasn’t a word anyone knew so I defined it and asked them to repeat the word, which they did, with great gusto, yelling it several times. Just for fun, I asked them to use it in sentences, which took some time, lots of giggles, and a few interesting sentences like: Do I have your permission to fart?” which made them laugh so hard I couldn’t help laughing. When we were able to stop, I said, “Okay, now we have a plan, but what happens if someone knocks down the blocks by accident? Then what?” More silence. I could see they were thinking about the question, which pleased me.
One boy said, “I know. We say ‘Sorry. Can I help you build?’” The children shouted their approval.
“Right,” I said. “Let’s practice what you’ve decided. There are enough blocks for everyone so go ahead and build what you want. If someone wants to knock something down, what are we going to do?”
“Ask for permission,” they shouted.
“What if the person says no?” I responded.
There was a silence before a number of them shouted, “We don’t knock it down?”
“Yes,” I shouted.
And so they did.
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.