Wednesday, April 28, 2010

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

“Very early I learned to value and respect words, and I also uncovered a passion for reaching my own conclusions.”

When I started to consider the origin of my values, a memory of my kindergarten teacher began to emerge. I struggle for real memories of early age, but this much is clear--she was a wiry woman with a tight bun who seemed a hundred years old, and, at least from the taste of decades-old feelings, someone who did not like children.

She ran her kindergarten in an upper room at the Methodist church that the stood at the base of the triangular New England town green in Nichols. Her fixed ideas were shaped by the way Yankee families held that children should behave from time immemorial, or at least as back as the 400 odd years since our religious fanatic forbearers fled Europe, and childrearing was fundamentally religion. My guess is that she had no love for Dr. Montessori who was, after all, a Catholic.

She was one of the elder “Misses” in town, who, along with the two spinsters who ran the library, always stood for us children as a clear demarcation between our families and single women who obviously preferred the company of their own sex. We were told that because spinsters were just not lucky enough to find husbands, they were forced into a world of loneliness and the company of other women. This we learned by listening to the distain in the pauses between sentences of our parents’ conversations.

My own experience has lightened any ill will that I might have carried through the years, and perhaps even added a touch of magic to the story that I am going to tell.

I did not want to nap when were told in a voice that did not beckon negotiation: “Put your heads down on the desk.” I would defiantly look up and examine her, and another woman, her enforcer, who were clearly happy to be relieved from having to entertain, occupy or educate their charges. Several times my mother chastised me for not following instructions—she had been warned that I was very “willful”. My response to my mother was probably a complaint, setting the tone for a long battle in our relationship. I would bet the farm that her response was “That is the way things are. Some things are unchangeable and, besides, you are in no position to think for yourself.” So of course, I began to think for myself even if it was entirely reactive.

But there is one memory that comes back to me. It has even appeared in my dreams. I call it the “blue redbird.” We had coloring books that had rudimentary, inelegant, drawings of things-to-be named in the world, mothers and fathers, doctors, siblings and pets, houses and gardens, flowers and birds. The white spaces inside the outlines were labeled with names and colors. On command, in unison, we all opened to a prescribed page, scrambled for the crayons heaped in a pile on a low table in the center of the room, and began filling in the spaces neatly and correctly. Sometimes I would read the labels and oftentimes, not. My coloring was meticulous and colorful. I never had colors bleed from a shirt or cat. I was also very aware of the colors, even at the expense of labels. One day I was carefully coloring a bluebird red. I think it was the woman enforcer who looked over my shoulder and motioned for Frau Dominatrix to come and examine a bird that had been designated blue—clearly.

“Ken that is not a redbird. Can’t you read?”

“Of course I can read, but there are almost no redbirds in Nichols.’

“That was to be a blue-bird. You never going to go anywhere or make something of yourself unless you read and then carefully follow instructions.”

“But I want a redbird!”

“Hush. You have made a very serious mistake. I am going to have a word with your mother.”

I began to cry. And now everyone had turned to look at the boy who wasn’t man enough to hold back his tears.

When my mother arrived in the white station wagon to pick us up, very likely unhappy at the prospect of her two hours in the car with three preschoolers, she was not pleased to hear that I could not read nor follow instructions. She certainly didn’t comfort me. The martinet reflected her own theories of child rearing almost exactly. The kindergarten “Miss” had humiliated me and that meant one less thing that she would have to correct—with any luck.

Why do I consider this an event to be appreciated? I learned that words themselves have consequences and that definitions cannot be assigned arbitrarily. Language was not a child’s game. Language was powerful. It could also become a tool for enforcement.

Rigid language stifled creativity. The blue bird that I had created was far more handsome than the red would have been. The person who had made the drawings of the alleged red bird was inept. The outline of its shape matched the blue birds that gathered on the big nut trees in our side yard. The sting forced me to notice their shapes and coloring with more attention and care.

But I am still left with a crying five-year-old boy with the unwanted attention of fifteen other five-year olds staring at him with fear in their eyes. The cruelty of adults is not entirely a learned behavior, but five-year old kids are perhaps more malleable than adults. Perhaps.

And finally, as a testimony to Creativity, a few words from a poem

by Robert Hass

If I said—remembering in summer,
The cardinal’s sudden smudge of red
In the bare gray winter woods—

[Our Nichols Methodist Church is not pictured, but looked very much the one that I found in Google images although the main door was set at an angle facing Longhill Road.]

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