Monday, September 10, 2007

If, from my first moments with my parents, I learned to read and react to the adults in my life, it was in the schools I attended that I hones these skills. As the child of a Marine, we moved frequently. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had attended eight schools.

Being the new kid – almost constantly – was both deeply unsettling and oddly predictable. I would arrive at some point in the school year. I would be introduced to the class. I would watch. I would observe and conform to the rituals of the school in which I was now living. I would gauge the reaction to me and decide how much to reveal of who I was, how smart I was ( or wasn't) , how girls acted in this school. I watched to see what I needed to become in order to fit in the best way I could.

While every classroom had certain givens – desks, chalkboards, teachers desk – it was the world of my new peers which was unpredictable. In fact, I recall few of the actual children. Names and faces occasionally float through my memories, but I can tell you the lay out of almost every classroom from memory. I attached, as became my custom, to the physical layout of an area.

When we moved to Vermont, I was in 4th grade. My parents had separated and my mother moved us to a small city far away from anyone she knew. I stood in the front of the room, in my school dress. I was introduced and my voice came out – a slow, Southern drawl – which took my classmates completely by surprise. This was not a land where little girls wore dresses to school and had Southern accents. This was a school where little girls wore jeans and sneakers and played kickball in the yard.

Being in the same school for a full year for the first time in my life, it didn't take them long to figure out that I was smart. Smarter than I generally let on. I began to test out of reading groups like crazy. Until I realized that this was not helping my place in the group. Little New girls did not come in and take over other peoples pre-set places in groups. I was continually reminded by my peers that I was the new girl. I learned to shade and shadow my actions in order to not draw additional attention to myself.

Flash forward to my pre-adult life, I found myself working with children. Not with intention, to be sure. I wasn't sure that I even Liked kids, let alone making work with them my vocation. I had to volunteer for the end of my high school honor society requirements. I chose the local parent child center, where they needed a volunteer to assist with the teaching of a parent class during the evenings. Most adults in the class were court ordered to attend this class either due to child protection issues or divorce proceedings. The adults were in their own room, and the children were in another. The “lessons” mirrored one another in the two groups.

I was to help with the young children. So I did what I did best. I sat down on the floor and watched. I didn't tell them what to do. I didn't sit in a chair above them. I sat down on the ground and simply observed. This led to the most curious thing.... Children, who had experienced various abuses and neglect, began to crawl into my lap. Quiet. Still.

I didn't lean in to hug them. I stayed still. The wildest little boy in the group proceeded to attach himself to me, crawling into my lap, and to the surprise of all involved....Fell asleep. It was as if a puma had walked out of the forest, sat in my lap and curled up.

What became clearer as the weeks went on was that there was something about me that these young children found consistent. Safe. Trustworthy. This allowed me to observe them more closely, and tuck my observations into conversations with the teacher leading the class. Observations about motivations or the actions of children which would take the teacher by surprise. I mean – who was I? 17? A Volunteer?

Later, after I acquiesced to Education as my career, I found that I retained that ability to stay still and observe. I found that this made me good teacher who quickly could read the mood of my classroom as well as see behind the words of the parents as they talked with me. For I was an old hand at hearing the meaning behind the words being said. Sensing the subtle differences between anger or fear.

I learned that I didn't have to entertain a child. I didn't have to impress a parent with my book knowledge. If I simply observed the child...made myself available to the child on the terms of the child, while still not relinquishing the aura of being a safe and capable adult, then the child would melt into me much like that first three year old boy. I learned that showing a parent that I KNEW their child – in intimate ways like knowing what Hannah did ( rub the back of her head) when she was tired, or how James needed to have a private reminder in his ear when it was time for him to use the bathroom - proved my knowledge and caring in ways that I could never vocalize.

Of course teaching with people who did not observe children as closely... I found it odd. I mean, didn't they know how much easier it would all be if they just watched? Didn't they understand that their lesson planning would be solved – I mean – the children were telling you what they wanted, how they learned best. To patently choose to ignore the depth of information being provided by the children seemed ....Silly.

So, to bring these two pieces to my research, I believe that these are reasons why I became a teacher of young children. Not for romantic ideation's of “Teacher” - but because I understood the position of young children. The duality of power and powerlessness implicit in childhood. I was the watcher – because I had no choice. It was the only way I could navigate the waters of my life. However, this skill made me an astute and powerful observer of young children. It also made me aware that there is much more than adults may be cognizant of in the inner lives of their children. I believe that they understand and process social events on a higher level perhaps then previously considered. I know that I did.

7 Baleful Regards:

Anonymous said...

As someone who is an off the charts introvert, I think I tend to ascribe this kind of inner life to my child at five months, whether it exists or not. But I'm a watcher too, because it's easier for me most of the time than being a participant. So I know there is a lot more going on with most kids than most of their parents will ever recognize.

Anonymous said...

As a military brat, I totally understand what you are saying. The talent of observation is a skill we needed to develop in order to survive. As a school teacher today, it serves me well.

Girlplustwo said...

one of my greatest fears is that i might not be watching near enough as i should.

i think about that quite a bit, actually.

Anonymous said...

Like Jen, I also fear that I am not still enough. When I play with Kaitlyn, I get down on the floor and build train tracks, show her how to group her animals together, but I rarely just sit down on the floor and wait for her to come to me.

Do you think that is why toddlers bring books to their parents? Are they instintively figuring out that book=adult sits still for a minute?

That was evocative writing, Dawn. I could picture little you, 17 year old you with the wildest boy in your lap, teacher you. And even though I've only had two occasions to spend time with you, looking back at both BlogHers, I see how many times there were that you were just...sitting and watching. The child definitely became the adult.

P.S. You are awesome. That is all.

Anonymous said...

I'll just echo other comments:

The power of observation--yes! This child who never fit in learns to follow the nuances...

You are awesome. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a watcher too. I'm always somewhat amazed when other people don't pick up the nonverbal cues and emotions that are vibrating through an especially tense or unhappy crowd. But I guess intellectually I know we're not all watchers...

It's definitely a survival skill though. I developed it as a middle schooler who was constantly on the alert for predators who would come and tease me unmercifully.

Lisa said...

This is a facinating post Dawn. And a good reminder that I need to step back and WATCH my child -- let him take the lead sometimes....

Thank you for this.

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