A SMIDGE OF TIME
Susan M. Fries
In the not-so-quiet moments of the lunch break, I sit watching 3 and 4-year-olds mangling milk containers they are too small to master. I glow inside at the joy and melee of their unique approaches to tackling this task and wait for the predictable yelp of frustration. I admit the fact that I enjoy these small instances where they truly need help when their need exceeds their patience and an audible round of, “I can’t do this”, or “Teacher, Teacher” permeates the air. They wave high their problematic containers for me to grab. Grunts and guttural exasperation are the undertones as they wait their turn for help. I encourage them to try, by pointing to the arrows on the small milk container, showing them, this is where to start. Arrows are good for that. I acknowledge, while opening one or two, that some milk containers just don’t cooperate and it is not their fault. Then, in my clumsy way, I struggle with a container that proves my point. The rest continue to plead verbally while I attempt to turn frustration into a teaching moment. I tell them, ‘sometimes you get a stubborn container, it happens to everyone’.
I tell them this because I do not know how that split second of frustration is amplified in their mind. Do they feel inadequate, unable to do what some of the other kids have tried and succeeded at, and how will it make them feel? Will they cry or feel less than others? Have they been encouraged at home or discouraged? Is it okay to spill milk accidentally at the table, or mangle something? Is someone there for support when life is just too big for them at that moment, at their age? As trail-blazing adults we often forget how those moments made us feel; we shouldn’t. I think they appreciate our honesty in trying to share with them that adults are not infallible and that things sometimes go wrong for everybody, and it is no one’s fault, especially not theirs.
I watch as they examine the school meal in front of them with puzzled expressions trying to identify the contents wrapped in microwaveable plastic bags or aluminum serving trays. Is it a chicken nugget or a tater tot? I laugh because often, we are unsure.
As lunch marches on they laugh, they joke, they use their food for imaginary aircraft or some other flight of fancy, and sometimes even eat. This is the child, raw, being themselves, performing a routine function with their peers such as having lunch.
They make faces at each other through plastic dividers because COVID-19 is not quite done with us yet, so care is still taken. They have adapted better than we have. Some have been seeing the world through masked faces for half of their life. They know their teacher’s eyes, but human expression has been obscured for the moment, a fundamental and essential communication tool. Teachers use body language to make up the deficit, and words of comfort.
Their stamina astounds me on the playground with the warmer weather settling in. They are flushed with sweat that collects into tiny face masks that never stay on their exceedingly little noses as they rebreathe their air a little too much, overheat, stop to drink from water bottles, and ask for a clean mask, because, “This one is yucky”. But they’ll go with the flow and continue to run around.
On occasion I will find an ill-fated mask in my hand because one of them put it there while scampering by and yelling to me from the slide on the jungle gym, “It’s all wet, I don’t want it, it’s disgusting!” It was indeed as I looked at the collection of sweat-to-mask ratio. I hand the child one of our extras and wrap the other in a paper towel from the knapsack full of first aid supplies, wipes, tissues, and other items we carry to the grounds and ask they not put a used mask into someone’s hand because it is unsanitary (yucky).
Observing them all, with their different approaches to everything, makes me smile. Their personalities are showing and growing, a charm flavored by their parents, their heritage, and their unique character is a true gift. It is like watching a flower in time lapsed photography opening up, changing color, and becoming something new and beautiful. They are still at the age when they parrot almost everything they see. Some mimic the adults they live with, almost sounding like grownups the way they use expressions too old for them, occasionally in the right context. They are watching so intently, absorbing, recycling our actions, and making them their own. In about 10-11 years they will deny being anything like their parents, nearly barfing at the thought. But today, in this class, they idolize mom and dad and will do and say anything to be like them. A grownup.
I have been given the honor of impressing them with something they might take into the future. It touches me in unexplainable ways. It also means I need always be on guard to ensure they do not see a bad habit of mine surface or an inappropriate mannerism. I am amazed at what they pick up through the drone of rising chatter in the room, and I am moved. I am intrigued by how quickly they pick up on weaknesses, my own included. It’s okay as long as I correct myself in front of them. I do not want to be so starched they cannot see that I am human, just like them. At the end of the day, they line up with their cubby possessions, coats, lunch boxes, and water bottles, along with arts and crafts they made (usually) for mom, and smiles on their faces that radiate brighter than the sun reflecting off the ocean. They stand waiting for their name to be called in the foyer of the school and are carefully guided down the steps to a waiting parent beyond the door. Through the window of that front door, you can see parents milling about, texting, talking, and waiting. One of the kids spots mom or dad and shouts, “MOMMY! Or DADDY” at the top of his lungs, and it takes a bouncer’s strength to keep them from lunging down the stairs too fast. Once the parent or guardian is identified, the child is handed off and he or she snaps into the arms of their loved one like they were fired from a slingshot.
All you hear as they walk away is, look what I made in school, I did this for you, at a pitch that would give a screaming guitar a run for its money. The sound carries for blocks.
I am pleasantly exhausted and we have only had them for four precious hours.