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Friday, May 28, 2010

The First Dream of the New Year

The first dream I had this year woke me abruptly that January Friday morning. It wasn't a nightmare, nor a pleasant dream either, just different. It was a dream about teaching, one that had a different kind of wake-up call for me. This won't likely shock you the same way since it was my dream--but maybe...

This is the dream:

There I was, suddenly in a classroom I had never seen before, flanked by two assistant teachers I had never seen before, looking at a class of children, about ages three to six, I had never seen before. Some of the children were standing but most were sitting on the floor directly in front of me. I was standing, surveying the room. I couldn't quite understand what to make of the whole situation. I could tell something was about to happen, but what? Dismissal? Lunch? Playground? Where was the clock in this place? So I turned to look at the assistants who were both staring at me. I guess that's how I had sensed that I was the one who was supposed to be in charge. They were politely mute, but I could read the messages in their eyes, "What's the matter with you?" "Get on with it." "We don't have all day!" Well, that's what their eyes told me. So now I knew what I was, a substitute teacher. I didn't even know whether it was morning or afternoon although I suspect for substitutes that isn't an uncommon feeling.

Suddenly I was saved. Through the hubbub a little girl looked directly at me and spoke in a high whiney voice, "Teacher-r-r, Brenda is being mean to me!" Now I knew what I had to do. I had been called!

Trying not to be impolite, I quickly craned my neck around and asked my assistants, "How much time do we have?" I did it just as though I actually knew what was happening next.

"About four minutes," was the reply. (It seemed awfully specific, but that's what they said in my dream.)

"All right." I took charge. "Children, let's sit down together. I think someone needs our help." (...with four minutes to zero. It was a dream, remember?)

As a classroom teacher in the real world I often sat with my class to discuss the more deeply wounding issues like being harassed by cruel name calling or the fear of being chased or attacked on the playground. Occasionally I would offer advice, but first I would do my best to elicit solutions from other children. Their answers always made a greater impression than mine on the besieged child.. This was what worked for me, sort of, and I stuck with it. Now, in eighteen years of classroom teaching, it had never been my habit to leap to satisfy the attention-getting strategies of small children. But my dream had teleported me to this class, and this was the only handle given to me that allowed me to function in this reality, so I grabbed it. Learning to deal with that handle became the whole purpose of the dream.

Precious moments passed while the class settled into group mode. I looked at the child who had addressed me. "Now I think we're ready. I'm sorry I don't know your name. Mine is Alis."


"Mercedes, did I hear you say that someone was being mean to you? Are you trying to say you'd like some help?"

"Yeah, it was Brenda. She's always mean."

"Mercedes, I'm guessing that you already know a lot about problems like this...because you asked for help. I can tell you already know that being mean back doesn't work. Did you know that most people don't stop to think what else to do? When someone is mean to them, they just act mean right back--even though it doesn't work. Well, anyway it never worked for me. And it certainly doesn't look like it works for other people either. What happens to you when someone is mean and you're mean back?"

Several answers came flying at me, not all showing complete comprehension of the question:
"They hit me."

"I'll punch him."

"He kicked me."

"I can wrinkle up her paper."

"I can scatch. I have long nails."

I had to interrupt. "Mercedes, isn't this what you're trying to avoid? This doesn't sound like fun!"

"No, it's just more being mean."

"So what can you do when someone's mean to you? What can you do that doesn't make the meanness worse?"

This time Jack (I think that was his name) answered, "You can walk away." I thought that his mom probably had told him that.

"Yes, I think that would stop the meanness."

Mercedes said, "But that's not fun either."

Suddenly the enormity of the misunderstanding hit me, the lie I had been serving to children for all these years. This discussion wasn't fair to children. It carries untruths at its roots.

I replied, "We're really going to have to work at this. Knowing what to do about meanness is a very hard problem. Maybe it's the hardest problem ever. I'll tell you why. When people ask you if you can read before you know how, you answer that you can't read, and it seems so impossible to believe that you will learn. But your parents and teachers know that you're going to be able to do it because they can do it. They probably felt the same way when they were small, and it didn't matter because one day, one wonderful day, they picked up a book and saw words in it! That was the beginning, and either slowly or quickly after that they were reading almost any book. It happens like that. All of us adults know it will happen for you the same way. You will learn to read too.

"So when we talk to you about how to handle meanness, like you should do this and you shouldn't do that, like why can't you stop fighting with your brother or your sister, we act like this is something you should know long before you're going to read, something everyone knows. But it's a lie. Adults don't really know what to do about meanness either, and they make much worse mistakes than you do.

"How can we help Mercedes make the meanness better? Has any of you thought of a way we could? I know Jack thought of one. Maybe we could all try his for a day to see if it works for us. Or perhaps you have something else you'd like to try when someone is mean, and you could try your way while we're trying Jack's way. We'll meet again tomorrow to talk about how these worked. Maybe we can find a way to make the meanness better for everybody. If we find it, we can tell all the other classes and the other teachers. Then we can write a letter to the President because he'd like to know too. Let's keep asking, what can make the meanness better? Let's be scientists and keep experimenting. We have to remember that paying back meanness with more meanness doesn't work. It makes the whole world unhappy. This is the hardest problem ever, but we can do it if everyone stops pretending they already know the answer and tries to find one that really makes meanness go away."

And all this happened in four minutes. Only in a dream.

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